Dumptruck Redux: Karen Havey (Hey V Kay / Half Shy)

By September 14, 2018Blog, Music
Synth-Pop Artist Karen Havey

Hey V Kay: Gut Wrenching

On the front cover of Gut Wrenching (self-released, 2011), the ominously titled first album by Boise-born synth-pop artist Karen Havey (aka Hey V Kay or Half Shy), is a quiet joke – to wit, a cartoon of a broken-down truck, a jack, a toolbox and miscellaneous tools. “Gut wrenching,” get it? A drawing of a wrench on the CD itself underlines the joke even further.

This touch of quirky, self-effacing humor is in keeping with my personal encounters with Havey, who is one of the most modest and charming people I’ve interviewed so far. It’s also a welcome bit of levity for an LP that its creator gave the accurate (if tongue-in-cheek) label “sad bastard music” on Bandcamp.

Over the course of 14 tracks, Gut Wrenching guides the listener through some of the darker corners of the human mind and heart. It explores dread, loneliness, heartbreak, despair, and above all else, obsessive and hopeless longing. It might be too gloomy for some, but those willing to take the ride should find it mesmerizing.

This isn’t to say that Gut Wrenching is perfect; Havey admitted to me once that she didn’t always know what she was doing when she made it. But despite its rough edges – a slightly ponderous vocal here, a murky mix there – the album has a hypnotic, darkly romantic power unlike almost any local release that I’ve heard.

Photos courtesy of Karen Havey.

A big part of it has to do with Havey’s savvy as a composer and technician. Even in this early work, she shows a penchant for crafting layer upon layer of lively beats and alluring synthesizer hooks. Some subtle production touches – the spooky echo on the chorus of “Forecasting Failure,” for example – and elegant, Joy Division-esque guitar lines don’t hurt either. But more than anything else, it’s Havey’s singing that puts the whole thing over.

It’s hard to describe the particular appeal of Havey’s low, breathy vocals. I don’t think I’ll be able to top what I once wrote about her voice in my old blog: “Weary and vulnerable but still bearing a calm self-possession… It sounds heavy with the weight of desires, memories, secrets.” Listen to standout tracks like “Robotic Love” or “Find Another Girl” and you’ll hear what I mean.

Oh, and it’s probably best if you’re sitting or lying down during “Work Me Up.” Otherwise, your legs might give way when Havey’s voice drops to a whisper.

You can find Gut Wrenching on Spotify and Bandcamp.

Further Listening: Half Shy

If you like Gut Wrenching—or even if you find it too morose—be sure to check out the stuff that Havey’s putting out under her new band name, Half Shy.

She spent two years studying sound engineering, and boy, has that work paid off. Her luminous, self-produced EP Bedroom Visionaries (self-released, 2017) is as close to perfection as synth-pop gets. Also, Adventure Time fans should listen to Half Shy’s wistfully gorgeous new single “Betty (A Little Bit of Madness).”

You can find Half Shy’s music on Spotify and Bandcamp.