Ever since people found that chanteuse Karen Akers knows her way around a good song, the Washington resident has had to do a little additional navigating. The company she keeps is pretty good -- Gershwin, Sondheim, Coward, Bernstein, Brel -- but since Akers must always be on the lookout for new songs, some well-intentioned folk envision themselves as tune scouts.

"Some of them are right and some of them aren't," Akers says diplomatically of the songs that are sent her way. "A lot of people think that if they've written something that's heart-rending and emotional I'm going to fall head over heels in love with it.

"But it's not quite that simple," she adds. "It's such a personal thing, choosing a song. I suppose in some way the lyric has to hit me first, but the lyric will hit hardest and have more of an impact if it is wedded to music that makes it real, that puts it in a particular place and time or that strikes me as honest, as the way people would talk to each other."

Case in point: "There's an interesting song that Lionel Richie wrote, 'Hello.' I like a lot about it and I like the music," Akers says, "but there was something inherently dishonest in the idea that the first thing you would say to someone is 'I love you' without really knowing them.

"And I couldn't bring myself to sing the damn song, I couldn't quite get there," she sighs. "I'm sure there's some convoluted way of actualizing it, and I could make it work if I absolutely had to ..."

Of course, these days, Karen Akers doesn't have to.

Akers, who is appearing at Blues Alley though Sunday, has been creeping into the public consciousness in increasingly varied ways since she first began to establish herself as a cabaret performer in New York in the late '70s. What initially attracted her cult following was a dusky, elegant contralto, flawless elocution and emotional empathy that seemed to get to the heart of every song she essayed and a dramatic style that brought comparisons to Streisand, Dietrich and Piaf. Audiences were mesmerized.

"Presenting Karen Akers," a 1981 performance film shot by a West German filmmaker who had wandered into a New York club and been enthralled by her music, became a PBS staple (since followed by a "Live at Wolf Trap" program) and her reputation began to move beyond cult circles. In 1983 she garnered a Tony nomination for her Broadway debut as Luisa Contina in "Nine."

Akers is as strikingly regal a figure as she is superb a singer. Elegant, angular and six feet tall, she possesses the exquisitely defined features of a classic Vogue model -- high cheekbones, diaphanous almond-shaped eyes and deep auburn hair in her trademark pageboy cut. She's been compared to everyone from Nefertiti to Glenda Jackson and even found herself catalogued in a book titled "The Looks Men Love."

Little wonder that Akers was soon being sought out by filmmakers. She made her debut in 1985 in Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo" as a '30s singer, and followed that up as "the other woman" who disrupts Jack Nicholson's marriage to Meryl Streep in Mike Nichol's "Heartburn." Both roles were little more than cameos -- albeit prestigious cameos -- and Akers has since finished another film and read for roles in several others.

If there was a time when Akers seemed just a tad unsure of herself, perhaps a bit self-conscious on stage, these days there's a new clarity, intimacy and determination to her work.

"It's something I had to work on," she concedes, remembering a time when she "had to overcome blushing when I had to get up in front of anyone and talk. Being with an audience is something that I have come to love, but I did not love it to begin with.

"I think I've come a long way in terms of being happy with an audience, being interested in looking and feeling their response ... And I love to make people laugh."

Akers attributes much of this evolution to an intensive acting workshop three summers ago at Arena Stage with veteran actors Stanley Anderson, Mark Hammer and Halo Wines. "It was a really rich outpouring of information and ideas, and the tools that they gave me I haven't even really begun to master," she says. "It made a huge difference because it was working with people and it was a place where you could take enormous risks and fall flat on your face.

"I took it to become more complete in my work," Akers adds, "whatever that work was going to be, whether it was fooling around on a bed with Jack Nicholson {a scene that was cut from "Heartburn"} or singing 'I Dreamed a Dream.' It was all going to contribute to 'me,' " she says, enveloping a separate self within her arms.

"This is the tool, the person you've got to work with, this is the mind and body and either she can concentrate and expand her imaginary skills or she can't."

Being able to take risks, she adds, has become easier as she's grown older (Akers is 41, but not so you'd know it). "I don't take myself so seriously anymore. I mean, singing is serious, but it feels so good it can't be 'serious,' you know. When I was younger I took myself a lot more seriously; it meant a lot more to me what people thought."

For instance, take her height. Being six feet tall may be a plus in the Continental Basketball League, but it's not always so in the theatrical world. Working on small stages (and under low ceilings) can be constricting. Luckily, Akers's year-long run in "Nine" provided her with a breakthrough.

"From the day I walked on stage to audition forTommy {Tune} I felt extremely at home on a large stage," she explains. "The proportions seemed right and I loved it. I also learned a lot just being around Tommy, who is 6-6, and watching him physically, watching him talk to us, watching him use his arms, which went out from here to there" -- Akers stretches her own arms as if she's caught a porpoise.

"I never really used my body on stage; that was a big change for me," she says. "I guess I'd resisted it -- I felt awkward, a bit clumsy. I'd never been really comfortable with my height, but being around Tommy that literally and physically changed."

At this point Akers' height is probably more of a limiting factor in her film career -- leading men don't particularly like looking up into their leading ladies' eyes (director Carl Reiner once said "she's wonderful ... if she wasn't so tall, she'd work all the time"). Instead she's been limited to cameos, and most of her work in "Heartburn," including an elaborate fantasy sequence that played off "The Wizard of Oz," ended up on the cutting room floor, though Akers made a request for outtakes.

"Believe me I tried," she sighs. "I even wrote to Mike {Nichols}. But Paramount wouldn't release them because Jack and Meryl are both in them. It is a rather unusual scene."

Early next year, she'll be seen in "Vibes," playing Jeff Goldblum's girlfriend -- "another one of my cameos," Akers smiles. And there are a couple of theatrical projects on the horizon, though "nothing I can really talk about for fear of jinxing it," she says. A sure thing is her second album, the first in six years. "Universal Life," on the small Rizzolli label, should be out next month.

Still unsettled is the home/career dichotomy. Akers was raised in New York, grew up and went to school there, and she first made her mark in some of that city's tony cabarets. But her marriage to attorney Jim Akers brought her to Washington, for the first time in the early '70s and permanently in 1978. She's been juggling energies and commitments ever since. The Akerses arrived at an arrangement that gave her space to pursue a career in New York (where she keeps a small apartment) and elsewhere while also raising a family here (they have two sons: Christopher, who'll be 12 this month, and Jeremy, who'll be 14 in January and is already 6-1 1/2).

The cost of all this has been high -- weekly commuting, prolonged absences and, not surprisingly, a certain familial exhaustion. And these days, says Akers, "it's sort of escalated. It's not only a conflict between work and family and where should I be and what should I be doing, now it's also a conflict between work and work, between one community and another. Am I a member of the community here or in New York?

"I'm finding more and more that I'm very happy to be a part of the community here and it's the first responsibility. It's where we're raising the boys and it gives me a little better chance to be with the family. I'm away from them a lot.

"I'm selfish enough to want to hold on to everything," she says, admitting that balance is the hardest thing to achieve. "I love my work, I love my family, I want to give as much as I can to both of them. Obviously, there are times when one of them is getting shortchanged.

"I'm sure a lot of things would be different if I'd stayed in New York, but I'm not sure in what ways," Akers says. "I'll always have New York in my blood, but Washington is really home."