In Will Davis’ video for his sweeping dreamlike tune “22,” a synthesizer oscillates like a hovering UFO as the camera pulls out from a dusty bed of crystal globes. Twanging Spaghetti Western guitar reverberates as we skim past a series of discarded objects and empty rooms. Our restlessly roving point of view turns a dirt-encrusted desktop, a disused piano keyboard and a cigarette littered floor into alien landscapes. Then Davis’ pensive, wounded-sounding tenor kicks in.
“Everybody says they know/ when they try to name me/ Everybody says they care/ when they try to maim me…”
As we glide past rooms once lived in and objects once used, the music acquires textures as tactile as the photographed places and things — swarming mass vocals, chiming piano and deliberate thunder-clap percussion that chugs like a locomotive gathering speed. Davis declares his intention to leave the abandoned littered landscape behind.
“And I know/ Just where I have to go/ And I’ll be/ The only one who leaves…”
“I believe in the idea of the lives of materials, and that there’s multiple lives in things,” says Davis, a musician, songwriter, educator and filmmaker, who performs as Rasmus Leon. He brings his lush and labyrinthine internal landscapes to Petra’s on May 13. Proceeds from the show go to Moms Demand Action, a grassroots movement fighting for public safety measures to protect people from gun violence.
Davis has crafted films, songs and music videos like “22,” which we are premiering exclusively below. The song is one of five that appear on Davis’ as-yet-unreleased EP, …And Then The Foothills, which explore life’s in-between spaces — points where you leave a situation but haven’t yet stepped into the next. Davis documents these magical spaces through the seeming ephemera of discarded objects and images.
“Everything I make is technically stock footage [to use in] something else,” he says. “I shoot things and [they] become this memory swell.”
Despite his propensity for crafting densely layered, hypnotically compulsive pieces, Davis professionally made his name as a filmmaker and educator. He kept his music making secret from most of the world for nearly 20 years.
“I always felt like I was in this in-between space,” Davis says.
Growing up in and around Wilkesboro, Davis experienced the trauma of a family coming apart. His parents divorced, and Davis moved with his mother and sister Anna into a rental home — what was meant to be a temporary home. Davis’ father is a pianist and jazz trombonist, but in Davis’ post-split household, talking about music became tacitly taboo.
Davis eventually attended UNC Charlotte to study photography while minoring in film. He scratched his music-making itch by sneaking into the university piano lab with friend Kirk Ericson, where they would smuggle in beers and play improvisational music. The pair got busted for drinking and playing piano, and Davis had to appear before student court to avoid expulsion. Then a senior, he got off with the admonition that he was behaving like a freshman.
Though he was, by his own admission, a terrible student — he regularly skipped class to shoot his film projects — Davis found his métier in film. After graduating, he went on to earn a master’s degree at the university.
“In 2018, I got the first full-time film studies position. In 2021, I accepted the director position,” Davis says. His efforts to transform the school’s film program from a minor into a major reached fruition this fall, when the university will offer a film and media production major.
A Sundance Screenwriting fellow and director of several film fests, including the Joedance Film Festival, Davis launched Charlotte-based visual marketing firm Small Creatures in 2013. Over 10 years, Small Creatures transformed from a content creator that worked for clients through ad agencies to a more creator-centric entity, one that works directly with artists.
Small Creatures has produced over 30 full-length music videos for artists. It’s also responsible for nearly 120 more videos, including live performance recordings and promos. Meanwhile, Davis privately experimented with a keyboard and a 4-track cassette recorder.
“I was layering sounds that I heard around the house that I thought were musical — weird window chatterings or doors opening,” Davis says. Among the few who knew about Davis’ hidden tuneful activities was his friend Stephen Warwick, founder and frontman for Ancient Cities.
In 2018, events conspired to bring Davis’ music out of the shadows, albeit under the alias Rasmus Leon, a moniker his aunt tossed out as a joke when Davis’ mother was pregnant with him.
“My aunt would give [my mom] the most horrible names to name me,” Davis says.
In 2019, both of his parents suffered strokes. Davis and Anna were tasked with rummaging through the family home, deciding what to keep and what to toss.
Although Davis had already written four of the five songs that appear on …And Then The Foothills, the job of sifting and sorting had a profound effect on him.
“Each week my sister and I were lining the street with things that are kept and considered private,” Davis says.
Although Davis had been keeping his music to himself, that attitude transformed as he saw his childhood home being flipped inside out.
“It was like guts coming out of a body in a horror film,” Davis says. Using the moniker Rasmus Leon as an alternative self, Davis recruited Warwick and the pair recorded all the vocals for the EP in Davis’ hollowed-out childhood home.
Some of the songs on …And Then The Foothills can be heard in videos Davis created for the EP. The video for “Basement” combines found footage with video shot in Wilkesboro, including at Davis’ childhood home. In the video for swaggering cabaret tune “Young(er)/Strong(er),” an animation by Gallic artist Frenchpixel depicts an 8-bit 2D version of Davis shifting through increasingly magical landscapes. The figure sheds layers from clothes to skin to muscle down to bone, turning to stardust at the end.
There is an autobiographical arc to the music on the EP. The swaggering cocky cat’s prowl “Basement” opens with the sound of Davis’ childhood door creaking open. “Thee MNT Bottom” is the newest song on the EP, written as Davis culled memories and memorabilia from the Wilkesboro home. Riding rolling piano and rimshot drums like distant artillery, the tune links the past depicted in the EP’s first two songs, with the uncertain yet hopeful future in the collection’s final two tunes.
The EP concludes with the magisterial epic “The End,” where beatific backing vocals and corkscrewing fiddle give way to a secular spiritual march. Here, Davis’s layering reaches its apogee. Braided strands of sound, including Kristin Garber’s heroic trumpet, bluegrass musician Jeff Pardue’s whirligig fiddle, and trombone from Davis’ father, enfold and entwine as Warwick’s masterful mixing keeps every track clear. The tune ends with the buzzing of a 1960 oven timer salvaged from the Wilkesboro home, but it suggests the crackling fossil radiation unleashed by the big bang.
Davis is already tracking piano with Charlotte artist Jason Scavone at Sioux Sioux Studios for the follow up to …And the Foothills, a double LP entitled And the Heartbreak. Davis feels the labor and love that has gone into both these projects, and his decision to share them with the world, have been well-rewarded.
“The ability to transform space through making music has been nourishing for me,” Davis says. “These [songs] are all [about] me trying to see materials beyond their surface level. It’s my own form of alchemy.”
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