When sought-after string player and solo artist Kinley Dowling was a child, her parents took her to see a concert. Struck by what she’d seen onstage, Dowling remembers asking them whether being a musician was something she could do for a living. “Yes,” she recalls them answering, “but it will be a lot of work.”
Undeterred, Dowling set her sights on a life in music. Unlike many aspiring artists, however, she knew from the beginning that she wasn’t interested in seeking the spotlight – instead, she dreamed of playing in the background. “Even when I was young, I didn’t want to be the centre of attention,” says Dowling, who was so shy as a child she became selectively mute (see sidebar).
Honing her skills, first at the piano, and later on the violin and viola, the Charlottetown native soon landed at Dalhousie University in Halifax to study under esteemed violinist Phillipe Djokic. “It was hard, but he gave me skills,” she says. “Suddenly, I could play any style of music I wanted.”
The day she graduated in 2007, she got a call from a member of the St. John’s-based, Newfoundland indie rock band Hey Rosetta! asking her to join them as a string player and back-up vocalist. A decade later, she continues to record and tour with the band. She also quickly became a popular session artist and has since performed as a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist on more than 50 albums by everyone from Buck 65 to Anne Murray (see sidebar).
Steadfastly committed to supporting other artists, Dowling says the idea of writing or performing her own music wasn’t even on her radar until her cousin, musician Liam Corcoran (Two Hours Traffic) suggested it. “He said, ‘You should write songs, anyone can do it, and you have lots of things to say,’” Dowling recalls.
At the time, Dowling was living with singer-songwriter Jenn Grant and producer Daniel Ledwell in Halifax. “They were writing songs around the house all the time,” she says with a laugh, “so I was inspired to make art, too.”
Taking the lead from her roommates, she began secretly writing songs in her bedroom. Still uncomfortable in the spotlight, Dowling remembers asking Grant to close her eyes and look away the first time she performed one of them for her.
It was Corcoran and a musician friend, Mark Geddes, who first insisted that Dowling try recording the few songs she’d been quietly penning. Refusing to give her the option of saying no, the pair informed her that they’d booked some recording time at Charlottetown’s Back Alley Music and that Dowling was to show up the next day. Stretching herself well outside of her comfort zone, she stepped up to the microphone and recorded a couple of demos – surprising herself by enjoying the experience. “It was fun,” she admits. “It actually worked out really well.”
Dowling then pushed aside her fears and began working on her own album, Letters Never Sent, which was released in October 2016 under the name KINLEY. Produced in P.E.I. by Colin Buchanan of Paper Lions, it finds Dowling on lead vocals, violin and guitar. Each of the album’s seven songs takes the shape of a letter or diary entry– from “Wild Horse,” penned for a lover, to “Golden Days,” inspired by Dowling’s favourite beach on the island.
“I love writing. It’s new for me, but I really like the creativity.”
But it’s “Microphone,” in which she describes the experience of being sexually assaulted on the night of her high school prom, and addresses the perpetrator, where Dowling is at her most vulnerable. “It’s the fastest song I’ve ever written,” she says of the song, which took her a cathartic 15 minutes to write after rolling it around in her mind for a number of years. “It felt like the most spiritual thing I had ever done.” The song, which has resonated with many, may soon be incorporated into the school curriculum in P.E.I. to help students discuss the issue of consent.
While Dowling, who was named SOCAN Songwriter of the Year at the Music PEI Awards (where she also won the prizes for New Artist and Female Solo Recording of the Year), is thrilled by the positive response to her first album, she says she still isn’t ready to perform her own songs for a live audience.
“It’s too weird for me to play my own songs, like ‘here’s my soul for everyone to see,’” she laughs. Instead, she’s focusing her attention on creating a series of music videos to accompany the album, (she’s created three to date, with filmmaker Jenna MacMillan), describing the process as “easier to control.”
She’s also exploring the co-writing process, most recently with longtime collaborator Dennis Ellsworth, with whom she recently released an album, Everyone Needs to Chill Out. The pair is now touring together.
“I love writing,” says Dowling. “It’s new for me, but I really like the creativity. You make something and it’s your own. And if it’s no good, you work on it some more and make it better.”
While she’s hardly ready to seize the spotlight, Dowling clearly seems to be inching her way towards it. Even as she admits her frustration with the fiscal reality of being a musician, she has no doubts about the path she’s chosen.
“I love making music, and it’s what I want to do, for sure,” she says warmly. “Life is good; life is really good.”