Greentea Peng: ‘A pop star? I have no interest in being a pop star’

A polluted intersection on the A1 does not seem like Greentea Peng’s natural habitat. Its ear-splitting soundtrack – of screaming horns and the odd exploding crisp packet – could not be further from the 26-year-old’s preferred sonic mode: blissed-out, dub-inflected psychedelic soul that speaks of renouncing ego, embracing love and bringing down Babylon. But it is her chosen location: the south London-born musician, otherwise known as Aria Wells, discovered this Turkish roadside cafe on her current visit to the capital and has returned repeatedly. “This place does amazing baklava,” she enthuses, before asking a slightly confused waitress to dollop some chilli sauce into her soup.

Where exactly Wells is visiting from is a mystery: she will say only that she has relocated to the countryside (precisely which country’s countryside remains unclear). It was a move, she explains, made in pursuit of a “general equilibrium, now my lifestyle’s got a bit more intense”. It’s another way of saying that things are going rather well for Wells.

She only began releasing music as Greentea Peng (a moniker inspired by a packet of the Peruvian green tea Seng that featured a woman in a tea-leaves bikini; “peng” being British slang for attractive) in late 2017; just 18 months later, she recorded a performance for the German music platform Colors that went viral. Last year, she guested on the Streets’ comeback mixtape and showcased her huskily honeyed vocals and leopard print Rasta crown on Later … With Jools Holland. Having picked up comparisons to Amy Winehouse and Erykah Badu, in January she placed fourth on the BBC’s next-big-thing forecast Sound of 2021, securing her position as one of the most promising and idiosyncratic talents in British neo-soul’s current wave. Next month, she is set to release her gorgeous and highly distinctive debut album, Man Made.

On paper, it looks like a seamless execution of a masterplan for stardom, or at least mainstream success. In reality, Wells finds the prospect ridiculous. “A pop star?” she scoffs, when I ask how she feels about potentially becoming one. “I have no interest in being a pop star or a household name. Being thrust upon people … ” she shakes her head in disdain. “As soon as it starts to feel like it’s about anything other than the music, that’s when I’ll take a step back.”

Claiming to be “all about the music” is, of course, a massive cliche, but with Wells one is inclined to actually believe her. She wants Man Made to be “an offer of healing”, and insisted on recording it tuned down to 432 hertz rather than 440, the frequency standardised in the mid-20th century to allow instruments worldwide to be tuned to the same pitch. Some people feel 432 is a less abrasive option (there are online quizzes you can do to see if you agree); Wells describes it as “more of a bodily, heart-zone penetration-type frequency”. Her band weren’t exactly converts, “hating” Wells for using it because they had to constantly detune their instruments in sessions.

The visual side of the industry also leaves her cold: in an ideal world she “wouldn’t even make music videos. I’d do shows and I like to dress up but I would probably leave that out.” Nor is she delighted when I mention the aesthetic – numerous face and neck tattoos, arresting hats and, today, sky blue eyeliner and many, many necklaces – that helps her stand out from her fellow singer-songwriters. “What, I’ve got loads of tattoos? I don’t think it’s a big deal, I guess it is for some people. It seems to be.”

It is no surprise that the onus on artists to promote themselves on social media is something Wells finds “jarring” and “tedious”. “I probably wouldn’t have Instagram any more if it wasn’t for having to promote my music, and that annoys me,” she says. What would happen if she decided to get rid of her account (complete with 150k followers) today? “I dunno if my label would let me,” she muses, before backtracking. “Nah, of course they would. I guess.” In any case, Wells cannot deny the platform’s smothering influence. “It’s like the main way people promote their shit now,” she says. “It’s infiltrated every aspect of society. You can’t get a job because you don’t have enough followers on Instagram; I’ve heard people not being allowed in parties because they don’t have enough followers on Instagram. That’s fucked up.”

Greentea Peng
As you mic it … Greentea Peng. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Her current label is a major: Man Made will be released on AMF Records, part of Universal Music Group. Wells says the setup suits her. “I don’t have the business mind to be an independent artist. Even when you’re not, you still have to deal with a lot. I’m all of a sudden having to make schedules which I’m not used to. It’s really out of my character.”

She seems to have a loyal team around her, leading her down a long-term, career-minded path. “I’ve been quite lucky in that sense because if it wasn’t for my first manager I probably would never have even … I was cool just making music and uploading it on YouTube or SoundCloud. My band was in Mexico; in my head I was always going to go back to Mexico and just sing on the beach.”

Wells began travelling as a teenager. When she was 21, she moved to Mexico in order to “switch up the energies. I wanted to go somewhere far away and beautiful and culturally different and do some self-delving.” (She has mentioned in other interviews that it was an attempt to kick her addiction to Xanax, and that at the time she was in a “proper bad way”.) In any case, she found what she was looking for when she landed a job at a yoga retreat, a place she says transformed her, altering everything from her diet to the way she viewed herself.

One evening, she performed a rendition of Lily Allen’s Smile at an open-mic night, a moment that was instrumental in reigniting a love of music Wells had lost in her teens. She had enjoyed performing as a child, a hobby influenced by her actor father, who shared with her his love of musicals such as Oliver Twist. After her parents split up, she moved from London to the south-coast town of Hastings, a decision prompted by her mother’s unwillingness to let Wells attend a local secondary, because “the schools were all turning into academies”.

Were the schools in Hastings any better? “Fuck knows!” she laughs. “I don’t want to say it was a rubbish school or anything, but I didn’t have the best time. It was confined: you had to wear the same clothes as everyone. You weren’t allowed to really question anything, I was just more of an independent kind of child.”

When Wells first moved to the coast, she made funky house-influenced tunes on GarageBand and performed at local festivals. At 14, she stopped completely. “I moved into a more melancholy phase: singing and music didn’t match up with how I was feeling.” It wasn’t until her early 20s, when that impromptu performance led to her becoming a fixture of a Mexican beach band, that she started putting music out into the world again.

In between Hastings and Mexico, Wells moved back to London, alone, at the age of 16. Before finding work at a bar that came accompanied by a “messy” party lifestyle, she studied politics at college. It was another defining interest of her childhood. “I was involved in youth parliament and shit like that,” she says. “I used to want to be the mayor of London or the prime minister. Later years, I’ve probably become somewhat disillusioned.” For any particular reason? She gives me a look: “I mean, come on. The list could just go on and on.”

In 2019, Wells uploaded a spoken-word poem called Bun Boris to YouTube (“I bet you sleep well at night as the number of homeless rise / While there are 70-year-olds and disabled people having to work nights,” went one couplet). She says she doesn’t like “to get too political in interviews”, but identifies one big theme of Man Made as “austerity”. As in the economic policy? “Austerity in all senses of the word. You can interpret it however you want, but I’ll just leave it as ‘imbalance’.”

Lounge music ... Greentea Peng.
Lounge music … Greentea Peng. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Aside from inequality, one of the major recurring themes in Wells’s music is drugs. On early single Moonchild, she says she would “rather spend my time getting high and staying aligned”. On Man Made she has a “big zoot litty” and implores the listener to “free your mind eat some magic shrooms”. A track called Free My People includes the lyric: “Release all of my brothers on a weed charge please.” When does she think wider society’s attitude to the drug will change? “As soon as they work out how to make money off it,” she says dryly.

Wells says she has never had pushback from on high over her drug references “because I don’t make music for children”. And she has no intention of starting. “I don’t think getting high is my main theme in my music but it’s definitely been present, because it’s been a running theme in my life.” Is it still? “Oh yeah, I love weed. Marijuana: it’s a beautiful plant.”

Wells admits that her approach to life does not mesh well with the regimented schedule of an up-and-coming artist. She already has the rest of 2021 mapped out “which is really annoying for me, because I don’t like to make plans”.

It is an outlook that everyone may have to adopt thanks to the uncertainty of pandemic life, she observes; a possible “silver lining”. It could be just one of the ways the public will be able to hop on to Greentea Peng’s frequency in the near future: a wavelength teeming with mellow sounds, healing intentions and right-on sentiments. It’s certainly no bad place to be.

Man Made is released on 4 June via AMF Records


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