Greentea Peng: hallucinogenic blend of soul, dub and the vibes of the natural world

Each week in Next Noise, we go deep on the rising talent ready to become your new favourite artist. Tuned into the natural world and with an aura that few artists can carry, Greentea Peng's 'MAN MADE' is a one-of-a-kind debut album. Words: Gemma Samways

Pitched 8hZ below standard tuning, 432hZ is believed by some to be the natural frequency of the universe. “It resonates more in your heart space, and less in your headspace,” Greentea Peng explains, her relaxed, south London-via-Hastings drawl barely audible above the roars of passing traffic. “Basically, it’s the difference between smoking a fat spliff and eating a hash edible.”

Hungover outside a cafe in north London, the morning after her first gig in eight months, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter is rationalising her decision to deviate from standard concert pitch on her long-awaited debut. “I actually find that if I’m in a cab and mainstream radio’s on for more than 15 minutes, I get a headache. 440hZ is so obtuse and intrusive; it doesn’t really occur anywhere else in the natural world. So I wanted to bring things back to the birds and the bees a little bit.”

In harmony with nature and out of step with the rest of the industry sums up Aria’s approach as Greentea Peng perfectly. It’s been her raison d’etre since 2018’s ‘Sensi EP, the collection that first introduced the rest of the world to her hallucinogenic blend of soul, dub, reggae and R&B. And that same maverick touch powers ‘MAN MADE’, the immersive, 18-track collection that she made in the wilds of Surrey last summer.

Greentea Peng
Credit: Stefy Pocket

Holing up at a pal’s house with her seven-piece band, The Seng Seng Family, plus Digital Mystikz-man Mala and regular producers Earbuds, Swindle, and Samo & Kiko, Aria spent an entire month living and breathing music. “It was when we had that mad heatwave so it was quite surreal, actually,” she recalls fondly. “I felt like we were in the ’70s or something: drinking bare mushroom tea, swimming in the lake and just playing music all day and all night. We were making, like, seven tunes a day; just a ridiculous amount of music. It was amazing.”

To be fair, so are the results. Taking her cues from Finley Quaye’s 1997 debut ‘Maverick A Strike’ – a lifelong influence, alongside ‘Who Is Jill Scott?’, The Fugees’ ‘The Score’, and ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ – Aria’s only aim was to balance live instrumentation with electronic touches. Genre-wise, everything was totally up for grabs, which goes some way to explaining the sheer scale of sonic eclecticism on display.

It’s definitely a pretty dazzling range, extending from the horn-heavy dub of ‘This Sound’ to the Eastern mysticism of the flute-flecked ‘Be Careful’, via ‘Nah It Ain’t The Same’s psychedelic grooves, a track that starts out somewhere in the vicinity of trip hop and gradually morphs into piano-powered drum ‘n’ bass. Even more impressive is the fact the set feels utterly cohesive, a feat it’s difficult to imagine many other artists pulling off at such an early stage in their career.

Though Aria’s only been making music seriously for three or so years, she draws on a lifetime of eye-opening experiences, from her time working in the bars and clubs of east London, to the months she spent travelling Central America in her late teens/early 20s. “I worked on a yoga retreat in Mexico for some mad American woman,” she laughs. “MAD. But it was a really good experience. It was like I was meant to be there, if you know what I mean? Being able to sit through these seminars and see people’s transportive journeys over such a short period of time was so eye-opening for me.”

As she explains, this meditative quality is integral to her output as Greentea Peng. “Spirituality comes from being very depressed for half of your life and having to transmute those vibrations into higher ones. It comes from the long, ongoing journey I’m on with my mental health. There’s no option for me to make shallow music because it doesn’t serve a purpose.”

This journey began as a young teen. As a child she was always obsessed with music, participating in choirs and singing Oasis and The Jam at karaoke with her Iraqi-English father and Trinidadian-European mother, as well as listening to her step-dad’s record collection, which ranged from Black Sabbath to The Clash. After a spell making songs on GarageBand at her local youth club, at 14 she withdrew into herself, and stopped performing entirely – without music as an outlet, she found other ways of escaping her stresses.

“Literally, drugs was how I dealt with things. There was no talking about feelings or trying to express them. And then I went through a whole struggle with addiction and that was really when God served it up on a plate to me and I had to choose. Luckily I had the strength to write, because it was a very dark time. A really fucking dangerous one.”

Greentea Peng
Credit: Stefy Pocket

Having revived her interest in making music while travelling in Mexico and Costa Rica, Aria released her debut EP in 2018, followed by ‘Rising’ in 2019, and a string of singles in 2020, which in turn led to a top five placing in the BBC’s Sound of 2021 poll this January. Interestingly, none of these tracks made the cut for ‘MAN MADE.

“Songs like ‘Hu-Man’ and ‘Revolution’ and ‘Spells’ were just not part of the album,” Aria insists. “The albums that I hold closest to my heart are complete, conceptual pieces of work. And that’s just how I felt the album had to be. An album’s not about being comfortable. In fact, I think it’s actually the opposite.”

To reinforce the point, ‘MAN MADE’s boundary-breaking arrangements are further enhanced by lyrics that tackle an array of subjects close to Aria’s heart, from mass incarceration (‘Free My People’), systemic oppression (‘Man Made’) and mental health (‘Suffering’) to blissed-out hedonism (‘Party Hard’) and unity (‘Dingaling’). More than most albums, listening you’re struck by the sense that this is very much a snapshot of Aria as an artist right now.

And, as she confirms with a laugh, where she goes from here is really anyone’s guess: “all I know is that I don’t want to do anything anyone else is fucking doing.”

Greentea Peng’s debut album ‘MAN MADE’ is out June 4
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