Warning: this article contains information about sexual violence that may be triggering to some readers.
It took Kinley Dowling her whole life to write the seven songs that would appear on her debut record, Letters Never Sent. For Dowling, whose artist name is simply KINLEY on her debut, Letters Never Sent serves as part of her recovery from a rape she endured as a teenager after her prom in 2001. The Hey Rosetta! member's solo album features songs written as actual letters and this track is to and about her abuser. In the years following the attack, Dowling feared ever running into him in her small Prince Edward Island community or, after she began performing and touring with Hey Rosetta!, potentially on the road. "What I always imagined is that with Hey Rosetta!… is what would I ever do if I saw him in the crowd. I would want to punch him…'You don't have that right anymore. I have the power again.' And I [thought], 'I probably shouldn't do that.' Then I was like, I am going to write down how I feel and write a song and it'll blow up and he'll have to hear it all the time," Dowling tells me over the phone.
Dowling isn't touring Letters Never Sent. She's still negotiating with herself why that might be—she says it is possibly due to her performance anxieties or that the record is still far too raw and personal to sing in front of an audience. For example, with the track "Microphone," Dowling wrote of her experience during and after the assault, telling her abuser how the experience made her feel. She says that she even emailed a copy of the track to him after it was finished and, this comes as no surprise but is nonetheless still disheartening, he never wrote her back. But she does music videos to accompany the songs on the record. "I liked the music and I wanted it to get out there. I grew up watching MuchMusic in the 90s. I thought, 'Okay this is a way for me to bring music to people's homes without having to get up in front of them live,'" she says.
With sexual assault cases, it usually falls to the survivors to explain why what happened to them will forever be wrong and invasive. These instances aren't handled well, culturally or judicially, and so survivors have to find belief and support in their own communities. "Microphone" is a quietly powerful song, placing responsibility in the hands of abusers, while also looking toward an optimistic future of that attack not being a defining moment or trait. Noisey is premiering both the video and Dowling's account of the assault, directed by fellow PEI-er Jenna MacMillan.
"When I first heard the song I was overwhelmed and really troubled that Kinley had kept this inside her for 15 years and I thought about how that would have followed her every move," MacMillan tells me. "It was deeply traumatic for me but I also really loved the song. For some reason I couldn't shake it." The testimonial precedes the music video for "Microphone" with Dowling explaining her assault for the first time in full on camera. The testimonial is striking, of course, and hard but necessary to watch. Dowling is visibly shaken near the end, still grasping at the enormity of the invasive, abusive behaviour she endured almost two decades ago. A year after the testimonial was shot, the two women began collaborating on the music video for "Microphone," which opens with Dowling alone in a muddy field in a prom dress.
The video does depict other survivors in their locations of the assault with there even being a nod, according to MacMillan, to very public sexual assault cases, such as the Brock Turner case where the survivor was found by a garbage dumpster. "All I could think about as a creator was how these survivors would go in these spaces and how they would pass by dumpsters, see bicycles and taxis, and, for me, it was all about reclaiming that space," MacMillan says. "Towards the end they have reclaimed it, and not only individually, but together in solidarity with other survivors at the concert." Dowling stresses, a little bewildered but nonetheless happy, that so many of her fans and survivors were struck by this song. "They were like, 'this is our song. thank you for writing it for me too.' I was like, 'oh I didn't even think about that' and I was happy…well, devastated that so many people connect with it. I am happy we have this kind of happy anthem," she says.
Sarah MacDonald is an assistant editor at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.