WILMINGTON — Last March physician Toren Davis made the decision to pack up and move into a condo away from his family while mining the new world of Covid-19. He said it was the safest way to do his job at Coastal Family Medicine and keep his loved ones protected in the middle of a pandemic.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to be bringing in and out of the door,” Davis recalled, “and I wasn’t sure how bad it was going to be. This was when we were trying to figure out if Covid was gonna kill 50% of the people that had been infected.”
To deal with this new world — and separation from his loved ones — Davis picked up his guitar. He said he wrote a song, “A Pen and Some Strings,” about being away from his family while facing the unknown. One song led to another and then another, and before long, Davis was packing up his mic and guitar alongside his medical bag while heading in for 12-plus-hour shifts.
Whenever he found a moment of time and inspiration, he churned out what would eventually become “Working Through Some Stuff” — Davis’ debut 10-song LP. The musician plays acoustic guitar, ukulele, piano and percussion on the album, which he wrote and recorded piece by piece over the course of 12 months. He completed his first song in February 2020 and the last one in February 2021.
Davis tracked parts of the record in his office in between breaks; other parts were recorded in the call room at the hospital, at his condo or home once he immersed back into family life in the summer of 2020. He wanted the songs to reveal the nuance of cumbersome, day-to-day life happenings in healthcare, facing hurdles and strains in the pandemic: “waking up in the morning and having to come in and do it all over again, when you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen that day or how bad Covid is,” Davis detailed. “We had no idea what it was going to look like, but had to find strength within ourselves and within others to push through.”
Davis released the album digitally on his Bandcamp site July 1 and is pressing 100 vinyl records of “Working Through Some Stuff,” set to arrive in August.
“Covid has caused production delays,” he said.
“Working Through Some Stuff” will be sold at Gravity Records and The Village Oasis. All sales from the album will be donated to NourishNC — a local nonprofit organization dedicated to help kids overcome food insecurity.
“We’ve worked with Nourish over here at the clinic for quite some time,” Davis said. “Food insecurity is something that runs pretty high in our clinic, which works with an uninsured and Medicaid population that has a little bit of a higher rate of food insecurity and other different social determinants of health.”
Taking care of each other
Davis recorded “Working Through Some Stuff” with the intention of it being lo-fi. It’s not polished or overproduced.
“I didn’t mean for it to be the most spectacular, studio-quality sounding thing,” he admitted.
He said he leaned into revealing all of its cracks and edges to show how he worked through complicated sentiments during the pandemic, both as a physician and a human. His song “The Business of Medicine/The Heart of Medicine” is a good example. It showcases the balance of practicing as a doctor while not losing sight of humanity.
“The song talks about two sides of the coin in healthcare in general,” Davis said, “one side trying to push more toward numbers, and the other side of the song is more, you know, why we’re here in the first place: to take care of each other.”
Davis said lyrics evolved often as reactions — to something as simple as how much personal protective equipment was on hand or whether there were enough swabs left for Covid-19 testing. He can pinpoint his emotions shifting on the album when the vaccine rollout began, even more so, when the death count started rising.
“A Welcome Ghost” deals with loss — specifically, all those who perished through Covid-19. Davis tracked layers of various vocal tonalities, including high-reaching falsettos he wasn’t aware he could hit. The effect sounds like numerous people are singing on the track.
“There’s not anything else behind it — just my voice dubbed over itself multiple times in terms of different harmonies, splitting threeway harmonies,” he explained. “I wanted to represent memories of people in the past, a welcome kind of haunting of times and places that have been good.”
An eeriness of nostalgia overarches the album, which Davis said was calculated. Each song is symbolic of his journey, including losing family members to the virus. Songs emote through change of tempo or even stagnant repetition, representing phases he and his colleagues worked through together on the front lines.
“I wanted to remember them through this piece, even if they aren’t here anymore in this office or working with us, but remembering how much fun we used to have together,” he said. “So it pieces together all of those different types of memories.”
He points to “Standoff” as a personal favorite. Listeners can interpret their own “us versus them” narrative, though Davis said he wrote it from a big medical-industry mindset, from watching how the pandemic deepened and exposed problems that already existed in the system.
“In terms of health equity, disparities in health, they’ve been present forever,” he said. “I feel like we’ve almost been in that standoff situation with the bigger machine that doesn’t necessarily want to acknowledge a lot of what’s really going on.”
To evoke that daunting heaviness, he thought back to when he and his brother would watch spaghetti westerns in childhood. Italian orchestrator and composer Ennio Morricone influenced the sound.
“I was trying to capture that third-act type situation,” he said, “that haunting kind of background. I feel like that was probably the one that took me the most out of my musical comfort zone, but it was really rewarding.”
“Working Through Some Stuff” is the first full LP Davis has recorded. He and his brother produced an EP as the band Alpaca Da Beats in Arizona a decade ago, right after Davis started playing music to help him unwind as an undergrad and again throughout medical school.
“It was a way to decompress and think through a lot of the stuff that’s been going on in my life,” he said. “For me, it’s almost like an acoustic therapy session.”
That space of creation provided Davis clarity in times of murkiness and high stress during a year that pummeled an industry he loves. He said his goal with his music is to reflect back hope and resilience, to encourage the listener to keep “pushing forward and showing up every day,” believing happiness and normalcy will return.
While Davis doesn’t have a release party scheduled for “Working Through Some Stuff,” he does want it to reach further into the community and do some good. He took a page out of James Tritten and Tracy Shedd’s book. Last year, they released on Fort Lowell Records “Grow” — a compilation featuring original works by local musicians — to raise money for the NAACP.
“What an awesome idea that was,” Davis said, “to kind of take that music and take that passion, and use it to help push for things in our society; it really inspired me to do something similar, even if on a smaller scale because this is, you know, just me.”
Davis wrote, recorded, engineered, produced, and marketed “Working Through Some Stuff.” It is the first album debuting on his family’s label, No Belly Empty Records.
All vinyl purchases of “Working Through Some Stuff” are $25 — just enough money to feed a child through NourishNC for one week. The purchase comes with: 180g vinyl, with cover art by local artists Justin and Amanda Slay and vinyl art by local artist Carly Davis; a full lyric insert; a Nourish NC sticker; a limited edition poster with album art;, a digital download code for the album; and entries into raffles for other prizes such as No Belly Empty Records hats, record players, and gift cards.
“No child should go hungry,” Davis added. “Food insecurity is something that runs pretty high in our clinic; there’s just a lot of things wrong with that. That’s another reason why I wanted to get into medicine. I feel like food is obviously one of the most important medicines out there. It’s one that people take three times a day, and they don’t even think about it.”
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