After 10 steady years playing downstage in Hey Rosetta!, Kinley Dowling moves into her own light with Letters Never Sent, a collection of songs that put voice to what she couldn’t say.

Krista Comeau

East Coast Music Awards w/KINLEY, Classified, The Once, Port Cities, Joel Plaskett Emergency and more
Thu May 3, 8pm
Scotiabank Centre, 1800 Argyle Street

Kinley Dowling isn't one to perform solo, but she's no stranger to taking the stage.

The Charlottetown-born musician and vocalist has played with the likes of Jenn Grant and Rose Cousins. Up until recently, Dowling was part of the indie-rock group Hey Rosetta!, which announced its indefinite hiatus last October. A year before the band's split, Dowling released her solo record Letters Never Sent, produced by Colin Buchanan, simply under the name KINLEY. Having toured with other acts for the last decade, it was high time to release something that was her own.

"I had something to say," she explains.

"Golden Days" is a song of homecoming and her love letter to PEI. "Blackbird" is an ode to jealous ex-lovers.

And "Microphone," the most talked-about song on Letters, reclaims her experience with sexual assault. Dowling didn't tour the album and, of the handful of times she's played her own tracks live, "I didn't like it," she says, citing her performance anxiety.

Dowling's garnered four East Coast Music Award nominations this year, including both song and fans' choice video for "Microphone." When she was approached by the East Coast Music Association to sing live at its annual award show, she didn't hesitate. "I've been going to the EMCAs since I was in Grade 11," says Dowling, and she's played the show with other musicians before. That said, she was firm about her terms: She told them she would perform "Microphone."

"This is my one tune and I will do it for this special occasion," she says.

In "Microphone," Dowling tells her story of being raped on prom night. It's a story she held in for a long time ("Three of my friends knew. I didn't even tell my best friend"), but she speaks candidly about it now.

"It's something that I thought about, not every day, but most days of my life for years and years and years," she recalls. "It was just eating away at me and I just felt like I couldn't take it anymore and I had to let it out, so writing that song was a huge cathartic experience for me."

Before the record came out, Dowling invited some friends over to listen to it. "I just left the room and let them listen to it, and when I came back a couple of them were crying and were just like, 'Oh my god, this happened to me too.'"

"I had to let it out, so writing that song was a huge cathartic experience for me."

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Dowling's story was brought into the spotlight after she participated in an art exhibit called SEXperience, organized by her friend Maria Campbell. As part of the show, Dowling had an art installation called "Pillow Talk," and she also performed "Microphone." Jenna MacMillan's installation showed videos of different people telling stories about sex—Dowling talked about being raped. Before her parents attended the show, she told her father Alan what happened for the first time. "That was the hardest thing I've ever done, but he was so supportive." He'll be on stage with her, playing drums, during her ECMA performance.

Dowling was not prepared for the media attention that came with speaking publicly about the assault, "but I caught up quickly," she says. She may have started out as an accidental advocate, but Dowling's since used her position to elevate stories in addition to her own. For instance, allegations of sexual misconduct by members of Hedley were made public in March. Dowling joined in a protest outside a concert in Summerside, where she and her friends handed out resources for victims of sexual assault.

On top of that, Dowling was recently invited to meet with five teachers on PEI. As part of a new module on consent for Grade 9 health classes, "Microphone" will be part of the curriculum.

"You were a pirate in the night/You took something that was mine/How do you live your life thinking this is alright?"

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Despite her album's title, "Microphone" is a letter that's been sent. At the encouragement of her mother, Dowling found her rapist's email address and sent him a link: "It's been 15 years. I didn't forget," she wrote. He didn't respond, but Dowling says "it was definitely an empowering move." If he listened to the song, he heard her sing, "You were a pirate in the night/You took something that was mine/How do you live your life thinking this is alright?"

Dowling wrote to him again after the video came out, which includes a clip of her testimony as shown at the SEXperience show. "I think I said something like, 'If you hear this song on the radio, it's about you. Here's the video.'" Again, no response.

Plenty of others, however, have responded responded to the song.

"A lot of women have told me their stories. It's been an emotional year," says Dowling. "I'd say there's maybe 80 to 100 women who have come up to me—all ages. Seventeen to 92." Hearing these stories "put a fire under me," she says, and she has no plans of stopping her advocacy. "This is what I want to fight for. To stop sexual harassment."

Another record may be on the horizon, too.

Dowling didn't initially want a solo career, but she's realized she has "more things to say" and more songs to write. Co-writing, as well as the marriage of music and film, are a couple of her current interests. As for touring? Let's just say the ECMAs might be the only chance to hear KINLEY live for awhile.

"I hope there is a cure for performance anxiety some day," she says.

We ought to cut her some slack on that front. Only one record in, Dowling has given her listeners so much already.

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