An all-star cast of performers will appear at a Haiti fundraiser Saturday night in Whitefish, including Rob Quist, John Dunnigan, Andre Floyd, Tim Torgerson and the Good Wood Trio. But event organizer Luke Dowler's ace in the hole is Whitefish native Annette Strean, now a New York City denizen who sings with the popular electronica trio Venus Hum. Dowler played with Strean and her husband Kirk Cornelius last year (appearing as Anniversary Party) in Whitefish, and when Dowler heard she would be coming back to Montana for a visit this month, he contacted her about contributing a live performance to the fundraiser.
"I still see Whitefish as this beautiful, idealistic place," says Strean in a phone interview from her NYC home. "I'm in love with the less stimulated lifestyle in Montana, because it allows me to have more imagination."
Although she enjoys the nerve-jangling excitement of life in New York, Strean still longs for her home state. She misses the expansiveness, the wide-open spaces and not having people living all over you. "I love that space, and I love feeling like you're a part of something," she says.
In New York, she's a part of something called Venus Hum, a captivating electronica band that came together in Nashville, of all places, in 1999. Strean, a singer-songwriter, had moved to Music City—with a brief detour in Portland, where she cut her first album with her brother-in-law, Arne Boveng—to try to make a splash with her songwriting. She stayed with a friend, singer-songwriter Kristi Neumann, and through some industry connections was soon introduced to the two musicians who would help her form Venus Hum.
The band's name comes from a rare medical condition affecting Tony Miracle, the band's multi-instrumentalist.
"It's called 'venous hum,' and it's when you always hear your heartbeat in your ears," explains Strean.
The condition is caused by a huge increase in blood flow to the brain, causing the walls of the veins to vibrate, which is constantly audible to the afflicted. It's a harmless condition, but one can't help but wonder if a musician is tempted to write every song at 72 beats per minute.
The band has toured internationally, and early in their career opened up for Blue Man Group. Strean provided vocals for Blue Man's biggest hit, a 2003 cover of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love." That successful collaboration was followed by another one, when Hollywood producer/director J.J. Abrams ("Lost," "Felicity," Star Trek) contacted the band about recording some music for his popular TV thriller, "Alias." That partnership led to an EP, Songs For Superheroes, and a bit part for Strean in the show.
"I played this CIA agent" she says. "I was really bad. I was supposed to hand some folders to one character and then leave the shot, but I just stood there. They ended up not using it. You can see me in the background, though." She laughs off the whole experience and stresses that no, she did not catch the acting bug from it.
"Singing and songwriting are definitely my thing," she says. "I would hope that I would always be considered a singer-songwriter."
Music was always a big part of Strean's upbringing.
"My dad was a logger who played guitar," she says. "We all sang at home a lot—old country songs, old hymns."
She and her three siblings all loved to sing. From 1980 to 1994, their music teacher at Whitefish Central School always had a Strean in his choir. When Annette was in sixth grade her sister's boyfriend gave her a mix tape that contained songs by the Cure, Depeche Mode and Siouxsie and the Banshees. It opened her eyes to a whole new world of music.
"Having those older siblings show me this music allowed me to live in different decades," she says
More recently, Venus Hum released its third album, Mechanics and Mathematics, in 2009, and the trio's currently working on a live-performance DVD. The band operates under a thoroughly modern dynamic, with the three members collaborating while living in separate cities. Musician Kip Kubin also pursues a filmmaking career in his home base of Nashville, and Miracle lives in Cincinnati, where he is involved in the preservation and history of that city's architectural legacy. The two multi-instrumentalists e-mail music files back and forth with Strean, sharing ideas and honing songs. When they do meet up in meatspace, the sessions tend to be intense and productive, she says, as they try to squeeze the most out of their infrequent time together.
"We're three very, very different people," Strean laughs, adding that the contrast is what keeps the band's music interesting.
Vocally, Strean's been compared to a less-acrobatic version of Bjö¨rk, but you can also hear a real Natalie Merchant quality in some of her phrasing and vocal timbre. Her silky, bell-clear tone provides a warm, human counterpoint to the electronic growls, beeps and other robotic sounds that decorate the band's throbbing compositions.
Although Venus Hum's music is usually characterized as electronica, it's much more accessible than the frosty-synth, dance-club drones that are typical to that genre. The trio's songs are built around more classically pop-oriented structures, often containing a traditional bridge or a major-key chorus. That emotionally satisfying approach, coupled with Strean's gorgeous, expressive vocals, gives their music a real human quality that helps it rise above the cold techno/electronica mainstream. Call it a heartbeat.
Strean performs solo for the Musicians and Artists Supporting Haiti benefit Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Whitefish Central School Auditorium, with an art auction at 6 PM and music at 7 PM. Vaden Earle, a World Vision consultant, will speak about his two trips to Haiti since the earthquake. Free, but donations encouraged.