“I like the idea of concept albums,” Water Wingz’s Adam Fenton muses. “One of my favorites, actually, is tattooed on me: ‘Animals’ by This Town Needs Guns.”
With song titles like “Chinchilla,” “Baboon,” “Pig,” “Zebra,” “Animals” was what the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had in mind (if only subconsciously) when making his debut EP, “Sick Songs.” Each of the EP’s six songs undercuts the one that precedes it: “Alive Song” is immediately followed by “Dead Song,” “Late Night Song” by “Morning Song,” and “Nature Song” by “City Song.”
“For whatever reason I’m really attracted to the idea of those opposites,” Fenton tells. “I think it’s interesting to think about music that fits in the morning and music that fits at nighttime. Or, like in ‘Nature’ and ‘City,’ how certain music makes you think of woods and mountains, and certain music makes you think of concrete and buildings.”
Heavily influenced by jazz, punk and ‘70s and ’80s pop, Fenton’s DIY passion project will be available for purchase at Saturday’s Water Wingz EP release show at Modern Legend. Cassette copies of “Sick Songs” will be available for $5; each comes with a digital download of the album.
Fenton was born in Washington Heights in New York City. His actor parents continued to perform in local theatre when the family moved to Chapel Hill. While his was not necessarily a musical family, Fenton was raised listening to his songwriting heroes: Elton John, David Bowie, Billy Joel, Frank Zappa, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor.
“Stevie Wonder is a huge inspiration to me, and I really love how he writes about political stuff because he’s very on the nose,” Fenton explains. “‘Love’s in Need of Love Today’ is one of my favorite examples of just how he’s not calling out anybody in particular, or making some huge political statement, all he’s really saying is we need more love. I think that’s something really difficult to argue with.”
Fenton is trying to write more literally and pointed in his own work, too. Water Wingz will include the as-yet-unrecorded “Describe the Light” in this weekend’s set. It’s a timely tune, as it covers ideas of peace, war and fighting.
In addition to writing the lyrics and music for “Sick Songs,” Fenton also played bass, guitar, drums and keys. Fenton started playing piano at 4. Middle school led him to take drum lessons and pick up a guitar as well.
“I actually learned a lot from other kids who were better at guitar than me,” Fenton quips, “and a big thing for me was when my dad would take me to open mics around Raleigh when I was 12 or 13. That was really formative because I got to jam with older musicians and see how it felt to play with a band and feed off other people’s energy.”
It was during this time, too, Fenton was introduced to the hard-hitting sound and drive of punk, the epitome of DIY—from musicians cutting their own records to making their own merch to booking tours without labels or management.
“Punk is a big part of my musical and spiritual background,” he says. “I think everything important is self-taught.”
Fenton then discovered jazz by 18—not necessarily traditional or swing jazz at first, but jazz-inspired music by the likes of D’Angelo, Steely Dan, Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar, especially the rapper’s 2015 album, “To Pimp A Butterfly.” This led him down the proverbial rabbit hole of jazz and its many layers.
While Fenton is a fan of many classically trained artists, he admits, he’s a bit disillusioned by the academic jazz of conservatories, where the music feels “sterilized” and “traditionalist.” “And I think with the internet you can learn almost anything you want about jazz,” he continues, “if you have the passion and drive to do so.”
The now 23-year-old moved to Wilmington in April 2019. Here, he found, supportive talents and collaborations abound. In fact, most of Fenton’s cohorts are UNCW jazz students or alumni, or musicians he met at Burnt Mill Creek’s Sunday jazz jams while playing piano. It’s where he connected with trombone player Jim Lane, who also is featured on “Sick Songs.”
“Even when I was recording the record I was getting a lot of help—as listed in the credits,” Fenton offers. “For example, I don’t play a horn, so I’m not very good at writing music for horn. So [Jim] helped write music charts. Unfortunately, he can’t make it for the show [at Modern Legend].”
The EP’s track “Alive Song” features lead vocals from Bella Mead of Luna and the Lush; however, Jess Coppola will sing the part this Saturday, along with other harmonies. There’s also a surprise cover song in the works, and Water Wingz will debut “Face It.” Fenton says the song is about obsessing over relationships and how they can become toxic.
“I tend to neglect myself and my own needs,” he details, “and [being] in search of some fantasy storybook relationship, and me dealing with how I feel an American being inundated by Lifetime, and just movies and TV in general, with this concept of happily ever after and coping and dealing with that and how it’s not real and it never works like that.”