She should, by all rights, be recuperating right now; that's what the doctors ordered after Debbie Harwood recently underwent life-saving surgery. Instead, the When the Cat's Away founder is rehearsing for a big comeback show in Auckland.

The former band member and soloist in her own right has been trotting out songs - on stage and in the recording studio - for more than half her life.

It's her voice we can all place, if not her face (with her Cat's Away compatriots, she took Melting Pot to number one.) She has sung for Queen Elizabeth II and the Dalai Lama; for Black Power too ("The Queen looked quite bored, to be honest; Black Power were far more enthusiastic," she chortles).

Today she is singing the praises of the cardio-thoracic surgical team at Christchurch Hospital, who have, she says, given her a truly new lease on life. "I feel like it's two lives in one lifetime. I feel like I'm about to start again."

Early next month she will take the stage with two of her four Cat's Away mates, Annie Crummer and Margaret Urlich, together with Shona Laing, Sharon O'Neill, Julia Deans and new musical recruit Lisa Crawley.

Plans for the concert - part good old get-together, part excuse to exhibit emerging talent, and all masterminded by Harwood - were well under way before she got the call that would finally provide an answer to more than half a lifetime of health questions.

Until two months ago, Harwood was spending as much time lying down as she was on her feet. Her heart was forever making its thunderous presence felt by ka-thudding around in her chest - to the point she could hear and feel it.

She was cold even when the sun was shining. And breathless. Her fingers were a ghastly sort of purple; her face a tinge of blue.

Today, Harwood's fingertips are as pink and rosy as can be - just like her face, which is a-beam with wellness. Her heart is no longer a wild, caged beast.

In medical terms, she was initially found to have a collapsed mitral valve. In lay terms that meant that one of her four heart valves was not sealing the chambers of her heart with each blood beat. By the time she made it to the top of the surgical waiting list, her poor old ticker was performing at less than half its optimum output; the oxygenated blood she needed just wasn't making it to her extremities.

When they opened her up, they realised there was more to it than had been initially detected. The valve had, in fact, ruptured. Oh, and while they were at it, there was the until-now undiagnosed matter of a wee hole in her heart that needed repair too.

That was eight weeks ago. She is all better now: has made a marvellous recovery. The rock and roller who never takes drugs on the circuit has even said farewell to the post-operative pharmaceuticals prescribed for her. She has truncated the recommended three-month recuperation period into two, so as to prepare for the next month's shows.

Talk about life after near-death. "With hindsight, I realise I've been ill since I was 13," she says. "My health has always been bad. I thought it was normal to feel like crap; now I wake up every day and I feel like normal. I have so much energy."

She will need it. There are the rehearsals, the dress fittings, the promotions, the shows - four of them.

Life was built for singing; she's known that since she was young. Her biographical note mentions an early stint as a receptionist at Bay City Radio in Napier - but she was not to stay there long before hitch-hiking to Auckland and throwing herself into music.

Harwood was the founding inspiration of the Cats, and the beating heart of the band - but never the well-known face. Not like Urlich or Crummer.

Now, 30 years on, she has a sextet of musical awards to hang on her wall. She has produced albums (for others) and recorded them: gold and platinum ones with the Cats; a collection of solos too. She's toured extensively with Jimmy Barnes and Diesell; she sang on the official song for the Commonwealth Games in 1990. She has lectured on matters to do with the music industry at Auckland University. And she's never had any singing coaching, nor any formal music training, other than music theory.

She does not know how to read or write music. That's the way it should be, she says. "Everyone I know that has done well - Dave Dobbyn, Eddie Rayner, Neil Finn - is self-taught. I encourage people not to learn music - especially initially. I think it messes up your creativity."

This is how the creative process works for her. "For me, life experience and music are intertwined. I always write when things are tough for me.

"It can be quite frightening at times, because you have no control and you never know when the next [wave of inspiration] will come."

What she does know is that when it does hit, it will be a big one. "It's the full package: the horns, the bassline, the drum patterns, the vocals, the guitar solos. I might have to stay up all night until it's all out. It's a brilliant thing to be able to surrender to that, and it's the same on stage."

Because she can't write music, she sings all the lines into her dictaphone.

There would, presumably, have been plenty of post-surgical inspiration for a tune or two at the very least. Unfortunately, she came out of hospital unable to read or write anything. It was a temporary disruption; anaesthesia can play nasty tricks on the brain. Harwood is now putting words pack on paper again. There are press releases to write, for starters.

And she has never lost her most vital piece of equipment: her voice. Although she learned how to play instruments at an early age, that was never enough for her. "I didn't want to go through anything to express myself, so singing was perfect - nothing got in the way.

"I see drummers and I think, 'Oh, you poor little thing, you've got all that [equipment] to carry.' And I've just got myself."

Harwood has a family with a history of heart problems - each having their own particular strain. "I'm the valve-y," she says. But it took a long time to detect her own particular ailment.

It wasn't exactly surgical tourism, but the operation did necessitate a bit of cross-country travel. Harwood is a North Shore, Auckland, resident. But the surgery came courtesy of a Christchurch private hospital, due to a move to reduce Auckland's public hospital cardiac surgery waiting lists.

Her two children - Marlon, 19, and Gala, 15 - were with her during her southern surgical interlude. Harwood is no longer married to their father, but she says she now regrets that she spent so much time when they were young being unwell, when she could have been devoting more time and energy to her family.

"I feel sad that I was impeded through my children's childhood. If I could have had this energy [then], I could have done more: for them and my career. I feel the illness was a factor in my marriage break-up and a number of other things."

She is big, breathy, and abundantly good-natured, She has always been the organiser, which is why she decided to get Give it a Girl on the road. "I think it's a tragedy people don't get to see Margaret and Annie and the others on stage more." Besides, she felt she needed something to look forward to.

The Cats have never broken up, she says; their concert appearances have been largely impeded by the cost of presenting a show.

Harwood describes herself as a real "brave-facer" - which perhaps in part explains the lengthy delay in diagnosis. She also believes she may not have survived the year had she not had surgery.

Now she's started going to the gym, and is rejoicing in the fact she can move and walk without noticing it. Her heart no longer cacophonies about in her chest.

She had a birthday last month. "It's all happening at the right time: the heart surgery, this concert.

"Now, unless something else happens, I'm perfect. I've got another 30 years in me."