Letters Never Sent

KINLEY, Letters Never Sent

“I think sometimes it’s better to make art instead of starting a possible fight,” explains Kinley Dowling about the impetus for her new solo record (credited to KINLEY), Letters I’ve Never Sent. Dowling, whom you might recognize as fiddle player, percussionist, and backing vocalist with Hey Rosetta! (I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that she’s also one half of The Express, a much-missed project with her cousin Liam “Two Hours Traffic” Corcoran), has set a deeply personal collection of diary entries-turned-letters to music, each addressed to specific people in her life, each one sharing thoughts and emotions that have gone unsaid until now.

She’s at her most raw and emotional on “Microphone”, where KINLEY calls out the man who sexually assaulted her at a post-prom field party 15 years ago. While she says she’s uncomfortable with confrontations, the seven songs on Letters I’ve Never Sent finds Dowling very comfortable in her own voice. It’s that very personal investment in each song that makes this collection so compelling to listen to. So often, there’s a great detachment between art and the artist. That’s not the case at all with songs like “Microphone”, “When You Speak Her Name”, “Blackbird”, and vivacious opener “Wild Horse”; while the glossy, danceable album sparkles and pops, KINLEY’s words connect on a most intimate and immediate level.

Dowling says she may never release another solo record, having said all she wants to say with Letters I’ve Never Sent, and has no desire to ever play these songs live. It sounds as if the very act of creating Letters I’ve Never Sent and setting these thoughts and feelings down has lightened Dowling’s load, confirming that it is very much better to make something beautiful than to go into battle. KINLEY’s album has me thinking about things I’ve left unsaid over the years, and prompted me to issue you a challenge: Who from your past do you have something left unsaid to? Three in particular came to mind for me. All are interconnected, and have to do with Dowling’s ideas about making art instead of fighting:

My grade two teacher, who led the school choir, didn’t know how to tell me that I couldn’t sing in tune. Instead of trying to help me, she would get me to turn pages for her so I wouldn’t spoil our performances. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood what was going on in choir, and I carried shame and humiliation about my singing ability into my university years, where I studied drama and theatre arts. Once I became a teacher myself, I remembered the effects her innocent actions had on me, and tried not to do the same to any of my students. Eventually, as one of her colleagues, I had an opportunity to tell this story, but it would have been selfish of me given the place and time we were in, and so it’s gone unsaid all these years.

My favourite professor at university had faith in me and believed in my ability to learn. He encouraged me to audition, and then cast me as Amos Hart in a production of Chicago in my final year. I worked with him and a vocal coach to learn “Mr. Cellophane”, the first (and so far last) song I’ve ever sung solo in front of an audience. I was terrified. It still scares me now to think I was all alone out on that stage, left to my own, untrained device. I let my grade two teacher, and my seven-year old, self-conscious self get in my head, undermining my performance, and holding me back. It took the entire run of the production for me to muster up an ounce of the faith he had in me, but by then, it was closing night and I’d never play that part again. I know that my lack of confidence and my inhibitions about singing often frustrated him while we were in production. I’ve always wanted to tell him how much the opportunity to take on the role meant to me, and how sorry I am for not being able to fully embrace it at the time.

Chicago is my most cherished university memory and my most favourite production for many reasons. The most vivid comes from that closing night. In the middle of my solo, I saw my parents, sitting four rows up from the front at at eye level with me. I could see their faces in the soft spill of the stage lights. They were beaming, especially my Dad, who never fully embraced my love of theatre or showed much affection. In the dark of the theatre, with his son at his most vulnerable and exposed, the look in my father’s eyes showed me all the love and support I’d been longing for all my life. I credit the love and energy he sent out to me for making that night’s performance so special. I wish my Dad and I shared more of these kinds of moments. Too often, we engaged in a war of words, so I deeply regret that I never thanked him for being there in the audience with me that night before he died.

Leif Vollebekk
Leif Vollebekk
The Cosmic Range, Toronto ON
The Cosmic Range