It’s rare that someone’s music truly captures you from the jump, but Greentea Peng is exactly that kind of artist. There’s something in her voice that is familiar and warm, classic even. It’s music that’s begging to be played while incense fills the room, some type of obscure tea is brewing, and a big spliff is lit (if you swing that way, of course). I guess what I’m trying to say is that Greentea Peng breaks up the monotony of the easily digestible and just as easily forgotten about modern bangers. In an age where music is often more about creating a vibe than content or subject matter, Greentea Peng manages to do both, and the mood being set is no doubt a real one.
I was excited to chat to the London singer about her story and the explosion she’s seen in her fanbase this year, in part due to her mesmerising performance debut on Colors. Over the phone between Melbourne and London, Greentea and I got to talking, laughing, and pondering. When we spoke, I was pleased to find that despite putting forward an energy that is wise and spiritual, she’s still equipped with a cool sense of humour and a biting realism. Pretty quickly, I had forgotten that we were doing an interview—it felt more like chatting shit with a mate.
Hey, good morning! It’s morning there right?
Yeah, it’s 11am. What time is it there?
It’s 10pm right now.
Okay. It’s like the complete opposite side of the world huh. Maybe the world isn’t flat then.
It’s a bit of an obvious question but I wondered if I could get a quick backstory on the name Greentea Peng?
Green tea is like my favourite tea, and there was a packet I found while I was away, this amazing packet, it was dreamy. It was called Green Tea Seng and the woman on it was really peng so I was like oh, Greentea Peng. That’s literally where it came from. It started as a bit of a joke so it’s not that deep.
I think it’s such a cool name, it suits you well.
Thank you. It’s funny that it does because it’s such a random thing but I hear that it actually does. I feel like it does too, so it’s worked out well.
I think some of the best artist names aren’t really that deep, anyway. Childish Gambino got his name from a Wu-Tang name generator online.
Oh sick. [Laughs] That’s jokes.
You were born in South East London, is that where you grew up too?
I stayed there until I was ready for secondary school, then I moved to the seaside in the South of England. A place called Hastings, by Brighton and that. I spent most of my teenage years in Hastings.
What kind of teenager was Greentea Peng growing up in Hastings?
[Laughs] A mad one. Lots of partying and everything. I was always coming back to London for summer holidays, my dad stayed in South London and I moved back when I was about 17.
When did you start singing and what kind of music was inspiring you early on?
I started singing about age 4. My dad inspired me a lot, he was into a lot of classical music and theatre. He’d teach me a lot of the theatre songs, so I started off singing stuff like that, and in the church choir and stuff. Then I started to get inspired by Ms. Dynamite and Lauryn Hill and The Fugees, stuff like that. I was very much into R&B and hip-hop quite young, watching MTV Base and that sort of thing. When I got a little older my tastes broadened a bit, I got into rock music, reggae, ska, and heavy metal, but before that it was mostly R&B and hip-hop.
So when did you sort of become Greentea Peng?
Well, I stopped singing for a while really, I didn’t think I was ever going to sing again until I was about 21. I was living in Mexico and randomly joined a band. That was the first time I’d sung in about six years, and that was when I started to think about calling myself Greentea Peng. I didn’t start writing songs until I wrote Sensi. I was just doing covers and playing around, getting used to singing again, you know what I mean? Then, when I moved back to London I started writing again.
Can you tell me about moving to Mexico? What inspired the move, what did you get out of it, and how did it help you find yourself as a young artist?
I just liked travelling, I’d been saving up for my next trip and I wanted to move somewhere. I had a friend out in Mexico who was like, “Come here, you can stay at my yard.’ So I went with my boyfriend at the time. I wasn’t singing yet—I was working at hotels and shit. I was going through a lot of mental stuff, so I was moving for a reason. I was thinking I wanted to get away from England, but I was trying to get away from myself a little bit. Mexico brought me a lot of peace and space to start my healing process. I was working at a yoga retreat, sort of running the retreat and setting up classes and seminars and stuff. It was a self-help retreat really so it’s funny that I found myself working there, coming out of a big dark patch in my life.
Then, after a few months of that, music came up for me big time. It just happened to be in a place where it was really easy to start a band and get gigs straight away—in this beach town in Mexico. It kind of kicked off from there really, I returned to London knowing that I wanted to do music and with a completely different outlook on shit, really. I linked up with my manager Kesh who I actually met in Mexico before I started singing, she was also a part of the story. As soon as I got back to London I started writing because that’s where I feel most inspired. It was all a bit mad how it worked out, sort of like a movie.
London has always been an eclectic and exciting city for music. Why do you think that is, and how does it differ to other cities in the world culturally?
There’s nowhere like it, because there’s nowhere as diverse. I’ve never been anywhere as diverse as London, it’s mad here. It’s the people that make it, which is why stuff like Brexit and this Windrush shit that’s happening is peak, man. Because this city without the people ain’t much of a city at all. That’s wagwan with the music too, it’s a big social and creative hub.
Are there any other London musicians that you’re excited by at the moment?
Do you know what? There’s so many. So many fucking sick musicians right now. Obongjayar is so sick. Elhiest, KEYAH/BLU, Denzel Himself, Wu-Lu, there’s just so many, man. I don’t really know anyone, I’m not like in the music community that deep but I’m just starting to meet people and see people play and shit [and] everyone is sick. It’s exciting. It’s a nice scene.
Do you go to Notting Hill Carnival? I just went for the first time this year and it’s unlike anything we have here in Australia.
[Laughs] No one has anything like it. I do need to go to Trini and Brazil but for me, Notting Hill Carnival is the one, it’s my favourite weekend of the year. My mum and dad took me every year when I was young, it’s just wicked. If the sun is shining too, there’s nothing like it. This year was ridiculous, it was the best carnival ever this year. You came to the best one.
Let’s chat about your new music. I wanted to say congratulations on the new EP because I’m really feeling it. To me, there’s something really pure about your music. I think we’re so used to hearing about material shit and there’s a lot of bravado in the music we consume today. Not to say you’re switched off to those trends, obviously you have ‘Peng’ in your name but I feel like you’re operating in a different lane to your peers.
[Laughs] Oh man, thank you, I hear that. I like that you said that, because no one has really said that before. It’s something I try and steer away from. I don’t want to encourage that stuff, because we don’t need any more of that.
Can you tell me what the EP is all about?
There’s so many themes in it. It’s always about love. This one is a bop. It’s like a walk around the city on different days, one song per day. I should have put an extra song on there. It’s all different moods. Sensi was just one theme but this one is like a little glimpse at different moods.
I liked the video for ‘Mr. Sun’ too. How was making that?
I shot it with my friend Felix. I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit dramatic. I’m not into videos as much, that whole side kind of stresses me out. [Laughs] I might have been a bit difficult to work with at times but Felix is really cool and he had the vision the whole time. I was kind of doubting and wondering. It was a bigger production than anything I was used to, I was a bit anxious about the whole thing, but in the end it all went smoothly and I love the outcome. Felix was happy with it too. It really matched the song in the end, I think at the time I was thinking that it didn’t really match the song but in the end it definitely does.
That’s sort of part of the process isn’t it? Starting to give trust over to other people.
Definitely, innit. Because otherwise I just wouldn’t have any videos. [Laughs] Luckily, Felix is a mate so it wasn’t like I was handing it over to a stranger. Still, it’s a difficult process. All of this shit is a bit out of my comfort zone. Music videos, doing interviews, having my photo taken all the time, it’s all mad for me. It’s just about getting used to it and learning the balance of it all.
Is there anyone you would want to collaborate with if you could?
Damn. You might just have to channel him then.
[Laughs] I’m trying my hardest!
I read you take your zoot quite seriously. Is rolling up part of your process?
[Laughs] Yeah, big time. It’s part of the ritual. I’m not smoking zoots right now because I’ve got a show next week and I’ve had a bit of a sore throat but yeah, definitely I love rolling a zoot. I want to make some Greentea Peng long rizlas. That’s my dream.
Let’s talk about Colors. Your performance of ‘Downers’ went up there back in June and has racked up about 2.5 million plays since then. I wanted to ask what that experience was like and what kind of impact it’s had on your career?
The Colors thing is jokes because when I first put out ‘Moonchild’, Colors wasn’t as huge as it’s become more recently, a couple of my mates had done it and I was like this is sick, I want a Colors. I wrote it down and then completely forgot about it. Then, earlier this year they were like, “Oh you might get a Colors” and I was like, “Rah” because Colors is big now you know? They have like, famous people on it and shit. I was shook obviously.
I didn’t wanna sing ‘Downers’ because in my head that song wasn’t ready to come out for time. After we shot it, I was outside bunning a zoot and chatting to the Colors people, thinking it would come out later in the year and they were talking about three weeks. So it was a mad experience but it all happened very quick, I think I underestimated what it would do. It did bits for me basically innit. As soon as they posted it I got like 20k more followers in a day. I just didn’t really expect it. My audience doubled overnight and now I have this new project, more ears are going to hear it. It’s brought a lot of people to my music so I’m very grateful.
So you writing the Colors thing down reminded me of a line of yours that I liked: Me and my bredrins, we’re busy manifesting. Do you believe in the power of manifestation?
Of course, this whole thing is literally that. It’s from deliberately changing my mind, and believing in things and writing them down. It’s all magic bruv, trust me.
You performed in Mumbai recently right? How was that?
It was mad of course. I’ve always wanted to go to India, I just thought I’d go when the time was right, I didn’t expect it would be getting called for a gig. It was sick, I went with my boyfriend for a couple of weeks. The promoters were really cool [and] we became good friends with them. Mumbai is a mad place, it was amazing. The show was wicked too, I didn’t know what to expect but the crowd was feeling it—some of them were even singing the lyrics. I was like, “Oh shit. Colours is mad!” [Laughs] It really is Colours though man, they’ve really done such an amazing thing.
Where else is on your travel list that you haven’t been yet?
New Zealand or Thailand. But everywhere, really.
What does 2020 hold for you and is there anything you want to achieve?
Fuck knows man, I barely know what I’m doing for the rest of 2019.
Follow Greentea Peng here and check out her new EP Rising below.