Annie Crummer was just 19 when her backing vocals on The Netherworld Dancing Toys' hit For Today made her a household name. She is a musical mentor for prisoners on a new season of Maori TV's Songs from the Inside which begins on Friday.

1. When was your first visit to prison?

That was it - when we were filming. It was the first time I'd ever walked into a prison. I've had relations in prison and I've seen them when they were allowed out for our aunty's funeral. I remember looking at my cousin at this tangi, handcuffed to two guards and I didn't really get it. I get it now.

2. Was it difficult listening to the stories of the students you were working with?

A couple of years ago I wouldn't have been strong enough for it. Your mind has to be as steely as those bars to deal with what comes your way - the weight of their life stories, their crimes, their victims and the victims' families. The parameters are so huge and you have to keep all of that in mind. It wouldn't have been a good idea to break down in front of them, that's why I'm so glad I did it now, when I was strong enough to walk through those prison doors and survive.

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3. Have you changed over the past few years?

I'm evolving all the time. It's better now. I'm a lot more myself. You have to get over yourself, to not be so precious about your feelings and not worry about what people say.

4. You were only 19 when For Today came out - was dealing with being well known difficult?

All I had known my whole life was music. I left school so early - I was 15 years and two months - and I was so shy. It was that shy cuzzie thing that most of us had in my generation. Now I'm pleased to see that there is more confidence among my fellow Polynesians. But I can't remember seeing any confident cuzzies when I was young except my gay cuzzies! Even when my popularity grew that didn't mean the shyness went away. I remember saying to God, "It's not that I'm ungrateful for my blessings and gifts but did it have to be so public?"

5. How had you started singing publicly?

My dad Will Crummer is an incredible singer and I'm lucky to have the leftover "Crummersones". Ha! Dad gave up music to raise us kids and I was always singing - not in church, because my parents weren't the typical churchgoers. They gave us the freedom to do our own mix of God. But it was talent quests in shopping malls, or at Cook Island nightclubs. I was on [TV talent show] Opportunity Knocks at 8. When I left school I spent three months watching TV soap operas and saw an ad for a [talent] show and that's how I got my first record.

6. How did you find the courage to get up on stage, when you were so shy?

I would think about the things my dad would tell me and you just go into a hypnotic state. When I see kids now, even the students on the show when they got up to sing, I think how brave they are. I think, "I could never do that".

7. Do you get sick of hearing For Today now?

I hear it nearly every day. My first thought is of the boys [The Netherworld Dancing Toys]. That's their song. My involvement happened so innocently. We were rehearsing for their university tour and that part just happened. Something erupted in me. It felt like the power steering inside - I've got no control over that. No one said "that's amazing" or anything but the producer heard it and said the song should be recorded that way.

8. Do you see the video as often?

I prefer just to listen - ha! I just think, "I bet everyone's laughing right now" but come on, show me a picture of you in the 80s. I bought that checked shirt in the equivalent of Farmers in Dunedin. That was cheap fashion. I don't know where it is now - I might have washed my car with it.

9. Do you ever doubt your songwriting ability?

I'm a singer first - I just dabbled in songwriting later. I've got 17 songs ready to go for my next album but a lot of them are collaborations. I don't read or write music and am fully dyslexic. I've had to fool everyone and myself throughout life. It was hard at school. But it makes all your other senses crank up to compensate. Even though I don't read or write music, I'm paying attention. I know what's going on.

10. When are you most joyous?

All the time. I choose to be happy. I'm a non-complainer. Life can deal you some knocks but I lift myself up every day. I don't drink. I never have. I don't have tea or coffee. I was forced to have a steak because I had low iron levels. The only buzz that I can get is music. Music is my buzz.

11. How have you dealt with rejection in your long career?

Two words have saved me: "Oh well". I tried to be upset and disappointed and envious and it doesn't work. I'm a lot more resilient these years in terms of my bounce-back ability to cope with stress. It's up to your own mind to flip things around. I never know when the next pay packet is coming but I'm still grateful. Even if there's one drop in the bucket that's plenty for me.

12. What has a life in music given you - and cost you?

It's given me an incredible life and I don't think about the negative. I get to do every day exactly what comes naturally to me. I've traveled the world and the world has been my truest teacher. There's a connection with the spirit when I'm singing and it nourishes my soul. I have to remind myself of my blessings. I count them every day.