Greentea Peng Makes Music to Soothe a Battered, Weary Soul

The 23-year-old's debut EP 'Sensi' feels like lying in tall grass or lighting a fat incense stick. But its calm comes from an intense time in her life.

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Nov 15 2018, 4:00pm

It’s hard to jam Greentea Peng into a neat category. On the record, the 23-year-old Londoner’s raspy voice floats over bassy beats that sometimes sound like neo-soul, sometimes like jazz, sometimes like the musical manifestation of taking a really deep breath while flat on your back in soft, long grass. In photos, Greentea stares back at you from a face and body inked in tattoos. So people may think that means she’s some #gapyear, ‘do you like these harem pants I got in Thailand’ caricature, who’s always treated her body like a carefully constructed temple. Words like “new age” and “spiritualist” headline some of the only press about her so far. But, as she tells me, she’s not trying to present herself as some kind of aspirational “guru.” Like the rest of us, she remembers the wildness of her decidedly un-zen teen years.

About five years ago, she “was working at Visions,” the now-shuttered bar in Dalston, east London, “Thursday, Friday, Saturday – whole gang in there. The nightlife was on point. You’d see the same faces every weekend and it was like a little family – although everyone was getting fucked up, and buzzing and that. It was messyyyyyy. We’d be up for days at a time.” She lets out a dry cackle now, sitting across from me outside a cafe in the Bermondsey neighbourhood where she was born. She was living in a warehouse at the time, to which the afterparty would inevitable migrate – “like 50 people, in my yard.” Now, that part of London – which has seen so many bar and club closures – doesn’t feel the same. Greentea used to be sad about it, but no more. “Life goes in those cycles, innit? The only definite in the world is that nothing last forever.”

Like a lot of the conversation we share, Greentea will start in one place, then end in another philosophical and tangential corner. It makes for a talk as refreshing as her music is soothing. Fundamentally, I’m here to catch up on the past few months she’s had, since the mid-October release of her debut Sensi (pronounced “sen-see,” not “sense-eye” as I’d first thought. She corrects me gently). The EP's six tracks bob along between syncopated drum patterns, reverby vocals, rhythmic elements of dub and just-about-dancehall, and dark, thudding electronic production fit for both a dancefloor and someone’s smoke-filled living room after the club. This has been an inspiring year for artists like her, who are shirking standard genre definitions – see Miink, Lava La Rue, Denzel Himself and more. As she’s huddled in a massive parka jacket, absentmindedly playing with one of many gold rings that look like they could knock a tooth out, she reflects on her upbringing, a hectic phase in her teens and how it all brought her to where she is today.

“It’s mad, cos a year and a half ago, I would’ve never said that I’d be doing this,” she tells me. “I thought I was just gonna, I don’t know, work in bars – which is what I’ve been doing since I was 15.” After leaving home as a teen, which we’ll come back to in a minute, she spent a few years ricocheting around London and the inside of her own head. She set aside the journals in which she’d been scribbling lyrics and stories, from about 13, and threw herself into being out and about instead. It was, as she starts to say, “normal teenage stuff plus a lot of reckl–” her voice drops. “Well, I don’t eve–… A lot of drugs, drug-taking. And I’ve always been a sensitive person, who tends to get overwhelmed quite quickly when it comes to emotional stuff. I think that, plus teen hormones plus the drugs… it was just a maaaaaad time,” she says, the syllable dragging out.

She pauses for a bit. “I was more focused on escaping. I was more about forgetting it all, and covering it up. And I think you can only do so much of that until your soul is like, ‘yo… you need to fix up. Or else you’re gonna overstep the mark.’ And then the music was waiting.” After that, as she puts it, she essentially went to Mexico for a bit, started writing songs again, then kept going with the music once she returned to the UK.

I’m a bit taken aback by the chaos that prefaced what we hear from her now. Her music is rich and calming, like a camomile paste you’d rub into your skin (please don’t try that, I just made it up). Her voice evokes the grit of Erykah Badu or Amy Winehouse, over love letters to weed’s calming effects (on “Medicine”) or how chasing money may still leave you empty, on single “Moonchild.” So it’s a jolt to know that the positivity, the light, the curiosity she feeds into her music now came from a pretty dark time. Sensi sounds like a stand-in for a rebirth, I suggest.

“It really was,” she says, drawing her jacket a bit closer as a lorry rumbles by. “I was at the point where I couldn’t even… I couldn’t even process my own thoughts or emotions. I was so detached from everything: the universe, myself, everything. I was in a huge amount of denial about what was going on in my life. I was angry, deluded, selfish…” She chuckles drily, and her voice trails off. This honesty, about 20 minutes into our conversation, is what listeners have tapped into in her music – she’s been able to channel anger, confrontation and contemplation into songs that invite you in. It’s as if Sensi says, ‘we’re all a bit of a mess, tbf, and here’s something that sounds beautiful but contains some of that stickiness too.’ She cites, as she has before, Lauryn Hill, Badu, Ms Dynamite and Finley Quaye as some of the artists who’ve helped her dig into that frankness.

By the sounds of it, she’s been able to flip objectively negative experiences into just… life experience, for years. After her parents split, her family – minus her father – relocated to England’s south coast. “I mean, it was a madness. My mum didn’t want me to go to secondary school in south London; the school’s were really bad at the time, all transitioning into academies and stuff, which she wasn't down with. So we moved to Hastings. It was a biiiiiig” – and she almost sings this, stretching the word out over a raspy note that dives downwards – “culture shock. Even at a young age, it affected me quick dramatically, I’d say. Because it was a very white area when I moved there – there are a lot more brown people there now.” She chuckles. And so she looked different, “my attitude was different – it was just… different, you know what I mean? I’d grown up on an estate quite independent from a young age.” And Hastings felt nothing like that.

In any case, she started experimenting with writing what she calls “jazzy songs, or I’d get funky house beats and write over that, performing them in Hastings at like, International Women’s Day festival or little things like that around town.” She shrugs about it now – “my parents never gassed me up,” for which she’s grateful – but the creativity she cultivated then stuck around. And that was even through the years when partied herself into a husk. “By the time I got to 18, I was haggard,” and now she bellows out a throaty laugh.

Then what does she make of the fact that people might now label her as spiritual, cleansed, pure and so on? In press photos – which she says she wishes she didn’t even need to use – her jewellery, crochet bikini tops and tattoos might be sending a subliminal ~vibey~ message. She scoffs: “I mean… I don’t do myself any favours having all these Oms tattooed on my face, really. I don’t have anything to say about it really. I can understand it, but at the end of the day we’re all spiritual beings so there’s no pointing at someone and saying, ‘oh they’re spiritual.’ Nah bruv, we’re all spiritual. Life is very very mystical – the idea is not to get gassed and turn spirituality into an ego thing. We’re all going through the same shit.”

Soon, she’s talking about Mother Earth and gently ambling down another one of her trains of thought. She snaps back to the initial question, after a quick glance at her phone: “But what I don’t want people to think is that I’m on some spiritual level or on some superiority thing. I’m not that, at all. I’ve got so much to learn.”

Greentea Peng plays A Better Feeling's London event headlined by Jimothy Lacoste, at Foyles Bookshop, this Saturday 17 November. You can get tickets here.

You can find Tshepo, probably bumping Sensi AGAIN, on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.