Strength from Silence

By Beacon Staff

Annette Strean’s voice, strong and expressive, propelled her singing career onto an international stage. But at the height of her success, she was forced into silence.

“It got to the point on tour where I couldn’t talk at all except to do the show,” Strean, a Whitefish native, said. “And then it got to where I couldn’t even do that.”

Strean had developed vocal nodes, small growths that emerge in response to repetitive stress on the body’s delicate vocal cord. The nodes caused Strean almost constant pain and threatened to end her career. Still, she kept trying to perform.

“If I didn’t work, Kip (Kubin) and Tony (Miracle) didn’t work,” Strean said of her band mates from the electronic-pop group Venus Hum. “I didn’t know how to take a break. I didn’t know how to say ‘no.’”

Eventually, Strean’s body left her no choice.

She underwent surgery to remove the nodes and spent months learning to sing and talk again through speech therapy. A naturally gregarious and talkative person, Strean jokingly refers to that time as “the Great Depression.”

She was allowed to speak for only a few minutes a day. At social functions she sat quietly, wondering if people thought she was “stand-offish.” At home she communicated with her husband Kirk Cornelius, also a musician, by writing on a dry erase board. Work with Venus Hum was put on hold.

It was a disappointing setback after an expeditious rise.

Growing up in Whitefish, Strean said she benefited from a musical family – a Strean was in the Whitefish High School choir every year from 1979 up to 1994 when Annette graduated– and WHS choir teacher Bob Clawson’s instruction.

From church to a local band, she took every opportunity to sing – no matter how silly or insignificant. “I even sang at the reveal ceremonies for Habitat for Humanity homes,” Strean said. “Just me with a tape recorder on the front steps.”

Immediately after high school, Strean left Montana in pursuit of a music career, living in Portland, Ore., briefly before making the jump to Nashville, Tenn., where she met Kubin and Miracle.

The trio recorded their debut album “Big Beautiful Sky” in 2002 and signed two major label deals. Venus Hum toured the world, playing in front of hundreds of thousands of fans. They collaborated with the Blue Man Group, best known for their popular theatrical concerts that combine music, comedy and multimedia theatrics, and performed several times on the “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” as well as on “Carson Daly Live.”

Then, a year later, things started to unravel. Life on the road took its toll. A recording contract collapsed due to a merger and Strean lost her voice. The three separated to pursue their own paths.

While difficult, Strean says the past few years have brought new dimensions to her work and personal life.

“I’ve become more personal, because I realized I may not be able to be on stage and sing that song I wrote for you,” she said.

After moving to New York City, she formed Anniversary Party, an acoustic-electronic band reminiscent of Bjork, Radiohead or Sigur Ros, with her husband as a creative outlet while Venus Hum was on hiatus. The couple recently finished recording an album together, which is due out this year, and performed in Whitefish last weekend – Strean’s first show in her hometown since high school.

They are also developing their own production company, Common Threads Production.

“I had focused only on singing for so long that it was tough to change directions,” she said. “But once I opened up to it, I realized there were so many more things I can and want to do.”

And with Strean’s voice reaching previous strengths, Venus Hum is back together, releasing the album “The Colors in the Wheel” independently in 2006 to wide acclaim.

Strean credits her success to a do-it-yourself attitude, encouraging other Montanans to not view their location as a hindrance to achievements, like hers.

“This is an amazing place to grow up, because you have the space and time to nurture your creativity,” she said. “You just have to take advantage of every opportunity you can – nothing is too small or stupid, because if you don’t do the small things you won’t achieve the big ones.”

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