Greentea Peng is a beguiling musical enchantress, to say the least, her soulful, slinky tracks seduce our ears with buttery vocals sitting atop R&B melodies. As El Dorado continue to assess the global situation, we hope to see Greentea enchant us!
“I’m sooo sorry,” Greentea Peng who graces the Notion 2020 Festival Guide Cover—birth name, Aria—profusely apologises as she leans in for a hug, opening the door at her South London flat. It’s been a bit chaotic: our chat’s an hour overdue, there’s been some miscommunication on both sides, we’ve both been waiting for each other in different parts of South, and all this has been set against a backdrop of an impenetrable steely-grey sky, erratic spatters of rain and billowing winds characterising most of the dreary day. Upon entering Aria’s home, though, an immediate feeling of calm takes over.
If a space could embody the essence of a person, Aria’s home would be it: dimmed, hazy lighting; the heady scent of burning incense filling our nostrils; soft fabrics in warm tones enveloping every surface; and her dinky ginger kitten, BUJU, traipsing around between our legs. A makeshift oasis, protected from the outer world beyond its four walls, it oozes tranquillity and stillness.
Sitting down over a warm brew—with a generous drizzle of home-made honey, courtesy of her bee-keeping partner, Percy—it’s pretty clear that Aria’s perfectly at peace with what she’s made here. But, when we start talking about the music, it’s a totally different story: “It’s just begun, man. It’s just begun, Greentea Peng, to be honest,” Aria says in her husky South London drawl, eyes gleaming. “Yeah, man. It’s been in the making, but it’s just begun with the music and that.”
A beguiling musical enchantress, her soulful, slinky tracks seduce our ears with buttery vocals sitting atop lo-fi, R&B melodies. As for the genesis of her name? Well, it’s simple: “One time I saw this green tea box in Peru and it was like so peng,” she laughs. “The packaging was amazing. I’ve got the photos still. It’s this sexy woman with green leaves covering her, like a green leaf bikini—I fell in love with it. It was called Green Tea Seng. But, I was like ‘oi Greentea peng!’ and it just stuck.” Peng—for those not in the know—means fit, good looking, tasty; it’s a personal fave in Aria’s common lexicon. But, wap it on the end of a good brew and there you have it, the birth of a rising star!
Her rise under the Greentea Peng moniker in the past year has been formidable—a widely celebrated COLOURS performance in 2019 cementing her place in the wider public consciousness and acting as a catalyst for the whirlwind that has followed, with her second six-track EP, Risin’, released at the tail end of the year.
In a myriad of genre-blending sounds evocative of a grand coalition between Amy Winehouse and Erykah Badu, Aria teases the perceived boundaries between opposing states: looking inwards and outwards; hope and despair; tender vulnerability and strength. She crafts shapeshifting music that draws you in—it’s like a soothing balm chronicling the trials and tribulations that punctuate our everyday lives. Through honest and frank poesies to love and loss, for Aria, it’s about the feeling and gaze that she can hold with the listener more than anything else. “You wanna connect with people,” she tells me. “You wanna get everyone vibrating on the same frequency as you and you wanna be spreading love.”
Growing up between London and Hastings, Aria always had a kind of musical sensibility. “I was always singing, man,” she says of her childhood. “When we lived in London, I was always going church every Sunday and my school was a church school. So, I was in the choir there. Always a lot of singing. I did a lot of singing with my dad.”
Things ground to a halt in her mid-teens when Aria found herself stuck between a rock and a hard place, in a destructive internal cycle with no obvious way out. After years of this darkness, she ducked—on the hunt for something more than city living could give her. So, she escaped to Mexico: “It was the best decision I ever made moving there,” she recalls fondly. “A really beautiful place. I made some lovely friends, I had a sick band and, in a dream world, I was always like ‘I’m gunna bring you to England’, but, obviously, it’s impossible. It was sick, man. Then, yeah, I moved back to London, met Earbuds and then all of that started here. But, Mexico was where I came out of my shell for sure.”
Wizkid producer of Slowthai’s “TN Biscuits” and longtime Greentea Peng collaborator, Earbuds, helped shape the foundations of the Greentea sound on her debut EP, SENSI: woozy synths, catchy rhythms, off-kilter flavours and a certain DIY sensibility abound. The duo have continued their experimental collaboration, honing the more confident tones and colours that pervade and persist throughout the entirety of Aria’s most recent Rising drop.
Given her life-long attraction to music, re-drawn into its orbit even after her darkest days, Aria’s clearly an innately creative person. When I mention this, though, she cocks her head to one side quizzically, pausing for a moment: “This word ‘creative’ it’s everywhere for me—and in general in society—and actually I never really paid much attention to that word until the last couple of years. I never considered myself a ‘creative’. I know I liked to write. I’ve never been good at art. Obviously, I love to sing. But, I came away from singing for such a long time. So, I was quite disconnected with my artistic self.”
It seems implausible that this sorcerer of sultry, intoxicating melodies and hazy, lo-fi jams, doesn’t consider herself a creative being. It seems so evident, even in the way she visually expresses herself—her face and body adorned with ornate tattoos and doodles, featuring a vast array of cosmic spirals, slinky reptilian snakes and a throat chakra to boot. “I just never would have put two and two together really,” she shrugs. “It would never have been a way that I would have described myself or anyone else to be honest.”
But, then again, Aria’s never been one to enjoy adhering to categorisation or to market herself under the guise of a sellable brand: take the ‘spiritual’ label that’s become apparently synonymous with her music and image: “It’s just the bait thing to go with, innit,” she sighs, rolling her eyes. “Like, obviously, I don’t do myself any favours—I have an Om tattooed in the middle of my head. I’m perfectly aware of that. But, my music isn’t particularly spiritual. Like for me it’s spiritual, bruv, because it’s part of my fucking growth as a person.”
“I’m not trying to be out here preaching to people. I’m trying to express myself and be honest and if people interpret that and have a spiritual connection to that then, obviously, that’s sick because that’s what you wanna do,” she says, earnestly. “But, I don’t like labels, man. When people interview me, that’s not what I’m trying to focus on. People always focus on the spirituality, or, you know, ‘when I was younger and moving to Hastings and the effects and… I dunno. People love a fucking story innit. Like a sob story and that.”
So, putting clichés and labels—thankfully—aside, what is the underlying purpose of her music that she wants us to take away from it? “It’s my way of expressing myself, innit,” Aria states matter-of-factly. “Especially, when you’re writing about stuff that’s personal—it’s a way of shedding it away.”
“Sometimes you’re fucking just vibrating on some unconscious level for time and you can pull yourself out of it for split seconds. But, then, you’re just in some mode of falling back into it, you know what I mean?” she continues thinking out loud. “It’s mad. But, I guess all expression is healing.” Aria makes music to soothe a world-weary soul. It’s a means by which she can peel back at the outer layers and reveal the vulnerability and tenderness which lie at the heart of the human experience—like a method of collective healing and connection through personal expression.
It’s something that’s taken time and grafting, though. For Aria, music is a craft to be worked at. In her processes of learning and unlearning, cutting away and growing back afresh, then, what are some of the most important things she’s learnt about herself?
“It’s definitely helped me realise my powers. It’s given me a lot of strength and confidence,” Aria replies, pensively. “It’s all part of it though. I just accept that everything happens for a reason. That I’m on this journey and whatever’s happening right now, for a reason, I’m just going with it. I gotta remain grateful, remain open, carry on learning. Not getting ahead of myself, never getting gassed. Just taking it day-by-day, and always enjoying it, and loving it. That’s the main goal. I’m bare grateful to be doing something I love and being able to live off it. It’s mad. I’m bare grateful for that. I need to remind myself of that every day.”
A musician as humble as she is talented, what really strikes you when chatting to Aria is her complete openness to the world and all it holds. Not only is she an artist in the truest sense of the term, living and breathing her craft, continually aspiring for more and honing her artistic voice; but, she’s simultaneously present and grounded with it too, freely vibing with whatever gets thrown her way.
“I hope it’s a busy year, man. With new music and just getting better—mastering the craft,” Aria says, as we finish up our chat. “I wanna get sicker, I’m not gunna lie, I wanna get better. I wanna be the best that I can be. Like, not in terms of like how many followers I got or radio plays. But, in terms of actually expressing myself and using the stage and allowing myself to be a little bit more free in the music. I wanna get proper free with it.”
Optimistic for what’s to come then, I remark. “Yeah, I hope so man,” she grins. “It’s good to be optimistic, innit. I am optimistic. I’m just excited, man. Spring. The daffodils are out, the flowers and the trees are blooming. There’s a beautiful magnolia tree opposite which is lovely to look at so, yeah. I’m happy for that.”