Karen Havey has always been a bit of an autodidact. The name of her new EP, Bedroom Visionaries (self-released, 2017), came from an online poetry class she took.
"There was this book [for class]," Havey said. "I was just kind of flipping through it one day, and I came across this poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And within the poem, he's talking about these poets [who] need to get out and actually do something, basically, and the line 'Bedroom Visionaries' is in there. I remember reading that and being like, 'Oh, that is perfect.'"
The phrase could also describe Havey's musical evolution. Starting with multi-tracking experiments at home as a teenager, she fashioned a moody, elegant synth-pop sound that evokes a tougher, more self-aware Bat for Lashes. Performing as Hey V Kay, she was one of the most distinctive—and unheralded—artists of the Boise music scene in recent years.
Released on Sept. 19 under her new band name Half Shy, Bedroom Visionaries features Havey's most assured and polished work to date. Although she lives in Seattle now, Havey still has a hand in Boise art—she wrote the score for the Lady Les Bois-produced web series Animal Warmth (2017), which will have a screening at the Boise Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 22 at 5 p.m.
Havey never imagined becoming a singer. When she was in school, kids had two options: band or choir. She chose band.
"For me, back in those days, singing in front of people was just horrifying," Havey said. "That was the worst thing I could possibly imagine."
Creating her own music didn't seem possible either.
"I was thinking, 'Well, I like music and I like to play music, but I don't have any way to [make music],'" Havey said. "You know, I don't really want to be in a band because I'm so introverted and shy. That would mean going out and connecting with people."
Then her brother Owen got a Yamaha DJX keyboard from a friend. The keyboard allowed Havey to record four tracks and play them in sync with each other.
"That was literally what started it all," she said. "There were tape recording machines before this and all that, but I had no idea about any of that. So it was this new idea to me—like, 'Oh, I can layer these different sounds on top of each other.' And it was all contained in this old keyboard."
Havey spent hours recording tracks in the basement of her house. Gradually, her voice began to emerge.
"When I started recording those songs and playing them for people, it was like, 'Oh, okay, I can sing. That's something I can actually do,'" Havey said, laughing.
She does it very well. Despite its crude production, the Hey V Kay album Gut Wrenching (self-released, 2011) generates a darkly seductive power over 14 tracks, largely thanks to Havey's low, aching vocals. When she drops to a whisper on songs like "Work Me Up" and "Find Another Girl," it's startlingly intimate.
Havey's voice impressed Animal Warmth writer-director Joshua Ray Malan.
"It's so strong that it's like she's not going to show off how strong it is," he said. "There's a tenderness to that and a subtleness to the way she goes there. But if she wanted to, you get the feeling that she could fill an arena with that voice."
Malan and his creative partner, Kirsten Strough, asked Havey if they could use "Growing Up to Grow Apart"—a wistful tune about the loss of a childhood friendship—as the theme song for their show. Havey not only agreed, but offered to score the whole series as well.
Malan believes that Havey's music works so well cinematically because of its restraint.
"She's obviously demonstrating a lot of talent, but it's not very 'look at me,'" he observed. "It's very much about making you feel a certain way."
Following the romantic turmoil of Gut Wrenching, Bedroom Visionaries feels like the dawn after a dark night of the soul. Its resigned but upbeat mood, confident vocals and bold, intricate sound are all signs of an artist coming into her own.
It took Havey a long time to reach this point; she spent two years learning sound engineering via online courses, which partially explains the six-year gap between Gut Wrenching and Bedroom Visionaries.
"Now that I know myself better as a musician and mixing engineer, I'm looking forward to releasing a lot more new music," she said. "Getting back to that energy and excitement of the old days of writing and releasing with a much quicker turnaround."
A couplet from EP track "Break Out" could sum up Havey's outlook: "Break out of who you wish you were. / We're gonna play it by heart."