Electronic music tends to be one thing or another—either it is beautiful, well-crafted, and entirely undanceable, as in the case of ‘intelligent dance music’ artists Aphex Twin, Bjork, and Squarepusher—or it is infectiously danceable, fun, and completely mindless, such as in the music of Vengaboys and DJ Keoki.
Nashville-based electro pop group Venus Hum asks the question, ‘Why can’t dance music be fun to dance to, sound gorgeous, and say something meaningful all at once?’ with their forthcoming summer release, The Colors in the Wheel.
Singer Annette Strean met up with me and photographer April Johnson at the 12th South wine bar Rumors, and over tasty glasses of red and white wine, we discussed her recent health scares, her upcoming move to New York with her husband, and Venus Hum’s upcoming performance at the Exit/In.
“I’ve been a singer and an over-talker since the day I was born,” she says when asked about finding out that she had developed nodes and polyps on her throat. “So to lose that—that was the one area in my life so untouched by insecurity or fear, it was such a safe thing. But I didn’t realize how much confidence probably was wrapped up in it. It was a lot of physical pain, and it actually started during [previous album] Big Beautiful Sky. It just didn’t get horrendous until then. I ended up going to a few different—no, a million different doctors and therapies and all that stuff. They said that I talked horribly, but that the singing—they were like, ‘you’re not as bad at your singing as you are at your talking. Your talking practices are horrible.’ Who knew? So I had to do speech therapy. But it was also just extreme overuse, and the schedule was just getting to be too much.”
In 2003, Venus Hum received an amazing offer to not only guest on a cover of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” with New York performance sensation Blue Man Group, but they were also asked to open for them on a tour that took them all over America and into Europe.
“For two years, it was like more touring and more touring and flying every week. And I’d dealt with a chronic illness before when I was younger, so in some ways it was like I knew some of the steps, like keep track of everything that goes in your mouth, keep track of all the things that you do, how you feel every day, how much sleep, nutrition and stuff, just try and pinpoint where it was going wrong. At one point I was on five medications a day, I was just miserable. It was freaking me out. And they said, ‘you can take two years off’—but I will always keep doing it, I’m like, ‘Oh no, it’s fine.’ I think that comes from having a dad who would cut his leg open with a saw and just tie it up and come home. The mentality of if you can stand, you can do it.”
Not on purpose, Strean did end up taking nearly two years off, performing with her husband Kirk Cornelius every once in a while and pulling from her experiences to complete the writing of the songs that would become Colors in the Wheel. The title comes from the differences in the members of Venus Hum, Strean and sound craftsmen Tony Miracle, and Kip Kubin, coming together to forge a new musical territory, both fun yet with substance.
“That’s sort of what it represents,” explains Strean, “there’s so many differences between us, and even though that’s what we did before, we don’t mind wearing the titles, like, ‘this is what I do in this band,’ and I’m not going to do what you do.’ It’s more just like enjoying it and letting it be what it is. And so all those different things coming together to make one piece, one thing.”
Combining her childhood love of musicals and ‘a little bit of schmaltz’ with the dark and dreamy, ethereal aesthetic championed by her teenage new wave loves Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Cure, Strean brings an element to Venus Hum often unheard in electronic music. Songs on the new record include “Do You Want To Fight Me?,” a song that embodies one of Strean’s most distinctive lyrical talents—the dramatic element of her words often gives you the notion that she is speaking directly to you, or someone.
“My songs are often dialogues between me and my brain or me and God,” she says, “because I’m talking about my one good eye, and that’s me because I have one horrible eye and one good one, so I can’t decide if I’m trying to fight myself or am I trying to fight God? The ‘eighty pounds of wreckage in a mason jar’ is such a visual to me of like all this energy being stuck in a little jar. And that’s the one that says, ‘you’re holding back the candy like a 1 year old. And if you’d break in half you could just let it go.’ And I so did not want to break at that time.”
The first single is “Yes and No,” a song full of layered vocals demanding that words be spoken with purpose.
“When I moved here, that was one of the things that I thought was a central thing I was trying to learn, if you’re going to talk, think before you speak. And also, what are you saying? And I had to go through big periods of not saying anything at all, literally and figuratively.”
The line ‘I can’t handle the pressure’ that ends the song correlates brilliantly with imagery of coal becoming diamonds.
The most atypical song is “Pink Champagne,” Annette’s song about when she first met Kirk, later to become her husband.
“You see all the girls waltz by, they wish that they were with you,” she sings. Worried about having a song that fun and carefree, she almost didn’t follow the desire to write about that night. “That’s what I’m talking about — letting go. If that’s the song that wants to come out, I need to just let it. Because that, I would have NEVER written that a few years ago. I would have been too, ‘oh, that’s such a base emotion.’ I would have so overthought it. But that’s just what I want to say.”
Venus Hum makes music that reaches a larger audience everyday, through captivating live performances and fans’ word of mouth. It is only a matter of time before their songs infiltrate all arenas of dance music, including the gay nightclub. Luckily, Annette feels so comfortable with the gay community that having a strong presence in such a venue seems entirely natural.
“I hope it’s not rude to say that I don’t think it’s any different,” she says on the issue of acceptance. “I have really really close friends, one of my dearest friends is gay, and that obviously makes a difference if you actually have friends—it makes all those issues seem so silly, in my opinion, any kind of prejudice against any people. Do you know anyone, do you have any human face to put to all of your issues? It was something that I definitely thought about growing up, like ‘one day I’m going to have to decide what I think about this.’ I remember I would really fear being asked. I was like, ‘what would the answer be?’ Because I know what I really think, but I know what I’ve been taught to a point. I think gay couples should be able to marry and should be able to have children. I do. Because I think that everybody should be able to love and be who you are. I think sometimes that people get so caught up in an issue on paper that they don’t actually think about it affecting a person. I’m glad that I waited in some ways to talk about this stuff, because I knew how I felt personally, but I wouldn’t ever just want to stand up without true conviction and the right words to say. And I wouldn’t ever want it to come across as some kind of trend of belief, but a true thing.”
In September, Strean and her husband will move to New York, a move that many felt they would have made years ago, given the concentration of dance music in that city. Strean explains why they stayed and why they have to go: “I had a lot preconceived ideas about the South, and I think it was important for me to live here to really understand and not to just have ideas about a whole culture that I knew nothing about. So that’s been a big big part of why I’ve been here. I felt like this time I needed to finish what I started. I just want to be done, and that’s another thing that’s so great about this move, I feel so peaceful. But Nashville has evolved a lot in the past eight years, it’s got all these things that when I moved here I would have loved. There’s those moments, like before you cut your hair, your hair looks really good the day before you cut it, but you know you still need a haircut.”
Venus Hum performs at the Exit/In on May 6, and Strean promises lots of new songs and fun reworkings of older ones. For instance, as Strean explains, “there’s this version of ‘Montana’ which is such an old song, but Tony did this new version. And when we did this show last week, we had it go for like ten more minutes, and I just got to dance with everyone else. It was so fun, it was great.”
In ‘Yes and No,’ Annette Strean confesses, “I must sing, it’s a compulsive thing.” Through the support of band members who truly love the contributions they make to a larger whole and through the sheer willpower of her own resilient nature, Annette Strean will continue to sing and to astound any that witness her do so.
The “Yes and No” EP is available at www.burnlounge.com and iTunes. Venus Hum plays the Exit / In on Saturday, May 6.