“As a songwriter, you make the sort of observations, commentary, and expressions that allow listeners a better connection with intimate dimensions of their experience in a way that is almost impossible to do otherwise.”
Allan Kinney’s mental health odyssey is a triumphant one.
But the much-loved and respected Ottawa keyboardist/songwriter and BIRDSONG album artist has had to overcome both the ravages of clinical schizophrenia and the innate discrimination of institutions and individuals who do not live with, nor understand, mental health issues. In the face of it, having drawn deep from within, he’s blazed an inspiring trail.
“I was only in a depression – the insidious onset of my mental illness – at the time,” says the congenial Kinney. "It was probably my second year in university residence that was my lowest point. The following summer, I decided to drown myself in the Ottawa River when I thought I’d been fired from an unskilled labour job. I was just about to leave my apartment door when the boss telephoned to rehire me for the rest of the summer.”
It is not lost on Kinney that were it not for music, and treatment and medication, he would not, from that low point, have persevered through three degrees, a 10-year career as a college professor, four albums, two Ottawa Bluesfest gigs, an appearance with Pellegrini Opera on keyboards in their production of Tosca, 60-plus shows with Ras Lee and the Vibes Band – and started his own band, Ben’s Motel and the GuruRebels, which plays all his original songs.
“Music is something I can’t do without,” he says of his journey. “I discovered this in my first effort at university, which ended with just music and not much going to class. I was beating myself up because I thought I was doing nothing, but I didn’t realize how much energy I was actually spending, how much I was learning and how important it would all be to me later. I was just guilty about cutting class.
“One of the reasons I had that reaction was I tried to do without music for a year and a half, and it just wasn’t working. It was something I needed in my life, and that was when I started to notice the symptoms of what they call the insidious onset of schizophrenia.
“I was using psychedelics then, and I was to become more ill with hallucinations and delusions in the ensuing three years. But I think that the music made a critical difference, already in that early stage between giving in to suicidal thoughts versus what we’ve accomplished – before, and now, after the boost we got from the kindness of BIRDSONG.”
In his last years at Algonquin College Kinney met BIRDSONG namesake David Martin. They became fast friends, playing music together long into the night.
“Sometimes you just know,” he says of their bond, “that this is someone you can trust. This is a person who will grasp that there’s nothing scary here. There’s no hidden agenda. The cloud of stigma may stick to you, but with Dave it was non-existent – much like it is with the foundation that bears his name. If BIRDSONG had existed four years ago, maybe he’d be alive today.”
Because of that BIRDSONG boost, Kinney is emphatic in his message to other songwriters who are thinking of applying for the foundation’s grant.
“I’d say: Do it!” he enthuses. “If you don’t do it, you’ll never know if the answer would have been yes! If you do it, it could make all the difference. Get your voice out there and heard. Every artist has an audience in mind for their art.
“As a songwriter, you make the sort of observations, commentary, and expressions that allow listeners a better connection with intimate dimensions of their experience in a way that is almost impossible to do otherwise. This connection brings people together in hope, love, and reconciliation. BIRDSONG has flexible mentoring methods adaptable to the state of the songs you bring to it, and they will see you through to sounding great.
“So, apply once you get a chance! If you’re not sure what to do about some questions in the application, you can ask for advice through the BIRDSONG website as well as from family members and friends you trust. Then BIRDSONG will help you get your music to that audience you know is out there, for them to discover and share your deepest expressions.
“That way, BIRDSONG can help you to help yourself and others.”