Interview with Karen Underwood – Soul In The City / Live at Saint Lukes

This article was first published in The Evening Echo [Cork] on 2017-05-25

Karen Underwood is a renowned singer with various musical combinations around Cork City, and known to many as the star of ‘The Nina In Me’, a stage show which has consistently wowed Irish audiences mixing her own life story and voice with the songs of Nina Simone. She is also the co-founder of ‘Soul In The City’, a soul music weekend held over the June Bank Holiday weekend, with over 20 acts playing 11 venues around Cork’s Victorian Quarter.

Karen gave a background to how the ball got rolling with Soul In The City, “I’d always said that since Cork’s Jazz Festival works so well didn’t we have a Soul festival? Noreen Gannon of Gallaghers Pub approached me about starting such a festival, so we forged on – completely unaware of the magnitude of the task of organising one! Last year’s festival was successful and we also learned so much.”Sadly this year’s edition will be missing a member of last year’s team, Karen continued, “the late Brian Carey, who was a regular performer in Gallaghers, as both a live musician and DJ, died in April. He was the one who actually suggested the name ‘Soul In The City’ when we were brainstorming about the festival and what to call it.” As both a performer in the programme and one of the organisers behind it, Karen is committed wholeheartedly to the weekend, “for me it’s a labour of love and a legacy that I want to leave in Cork. ‘The Chicago Diva’ is a name I developed here, I started here, I live here, I’m loved and supported here. I want this festival to grow, and grow we will!”

While the festival mainly centres around the MacCurtain Street area, one of it’s key events will be ‘The Soul Review’ when Karen will be performing in Live At Saint Lukes. Karen and her band will be joined on stage by many of the weekend’s performers, “people can expect appearances from Cork’s Kings and Queens of Soul. I’ll be joined by my soul sister Gemma Sugrue – guys have bromances… she’s my sistermance! Other singers on stage will include Ceara Hurley; Buck Taylor; the gorgeous and smooth Velvin Lamont; and the amazing Niall McCabe. We’ll be doing more that just singing the songs, we’ll be telling stories about the music, artist and ourselves.”
She is adamant that it will be an enriching and positive night thoughout, and finds it fitting the setting will be in a former church, “there won’t be anything too sad though, I’ve been sad long enough. I want to celebrate the artists represented and my friends sharing the space. It’s time for me to ‘Take It To Church!’… Soul music gave me life. As Flip Wilson said it’s  “the church of what’s happening now”.

Stevie G, the Evening Echo columnist, will be DJing as part of the festival in Cask on Friday night and in Gourmet Burger on Sunday afternoon, and agrees with Karen that Soul Music has always tended to reflect what is happening in the world, “for me Soul music has always carried a political edge, even when it hasn’t been very obvious. The music was central to the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 60s and many of these struggles continue today. The media for some bizarre reason decided that Beyoncé’s last album was pioneering in this regard but Soul music has been doing this kind of stuff for 50 years now, and in these troubling times I’m glad that artists are using their voice to say something of substance!”
He also agrees that there is room in the city for a Soul music festival, “I think Cork has always had a soulful vibe, traditionally even the Hip-Hop and House music popular here has always been of the more soulful variety. Soul, R’n’B, Funk and even Disco have been very popular in Cork for many years. In recent years there are more people creating the music rather than just playing it, which is great.”

Karen carried on Stevie’s point about Cork’s healthy live music scene, with most of the musicians that have impressed her being incorporated into the festival’s many live concerts and her own Soul Review show, “to quote Gemma Sugre – ‘Cork is like a little Motown!’ and she’s absolutely right. We have some of the best keyboard players I’ve heard, people like Phil Collins, Cormac McCarthy and Erik Gullikson; guitarists such as Eoghan ‘Regi’ Regan, Hugh Dillon and Ariel Posen… not to mention the ones they’re breeding over in the Cork School Of Music. Then there’s bassists such as Chris McCarthy and Jerome Rimson and drummers like Davy Ryan and Fionn O’Ceallachain. The list could get silly, and that’s before we even start talking about brass instruments, there’s Paul Dunlea – he’s just bad ass! He makes me weak. I’ve not even got started. Cork is a soul singers dream.”

Soul In The City runs from Friday 2 to Sunday 4 June, go to for the full timetable of the festival.


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