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BBC Sound of 2021: Greentea Peng goes from 'beach town rock star' to the world

By Paul Glynn
Entertainment & arts reporter

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image copyrightGreentea Peng
image captionGreentea Peng is inspired by Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Miss Dynamite, Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse

It was at a tequila-fuelled, open-mic jam night in Mexico four years ago that Aria Wells rediscovered her voice.

The free-spirited Londoner had pretty much given up on singing and songwriting during a "reckless" period in her teens - and was instead documenting her travels under the online pseudonym Greentea Peng.

She was actually working on a yoga retreat on the night she found the (Dutch) courage to join a live band, treating the barflies of beachside Tulum to a cover of Lily Allen's Smile... Although it could just as easily have been an Amy Winehouse number, the now 26-year-old recalls hazily.

"I was actually sitting on my own, just drunk, coming out of a really dark phase of my life mentally, and in this really magical place," says Wells.

"There was just that [sod] it feeling of, 'Let me get up and sing a song'. And I did and I just loved it, man. I hadn't done it in years, it just felt amazing.

"Then the guitarist was like, [adopts deeper voice] 'Hey girl, you know we need a singer in our band?' I was like, 'Sweet', and the next day we were practising Arctic Monkeys and Black Sabbath songs."

'Beach town rock star'

Within two weeks, her new band (the aptly-monikered Los Hedonistas) were booked to play at all the bars and hotels in town.

"I've gone from having no money - I literally had like £900 to last me a year - to earning pesos every night and getting free drinks and food," she says.

"I was like, 'I could get used to this: Beach town rock star!'"

Figure captionWarning: Third party content may contain adverts

Between trips home to the UK and back out to Mexico to perform with the band, Wells started penning the tunes that would wind up on her 2018 debut solo EP.

A savvily-mixed cocktail of psychedelic soul, R&B, hip-hop, dub and reggae, Greentea Peng's music soon went viral thanks to a Colors Show video for her song, Downers.

Fast forward to 2020 and the singer shone, just as she did in that Mexican bar, resplendent with her facial tattoos and piercings, on her TV debut. This time, in the more grandiose setting of a chandeliered, socially-distanced episode of Later... with Jools Holland.

Speaking via video call from her new home in the European countryside, Wells told us all about her loco journey from Latin America to fourth place on the BBC Sound of 2021 list - which aims to highlight the most promising music talent for the coming year.

Hey Aria. Congratulations on making the top five! Where does music start for you?

I've been singing from as young as I can remember. My dad was very musical, he was a trained actor, very theatrical, and would always take me to theatre auditions and teach me Oliver Twist songs. I loved Oliver Twist as a kid.

Then [there was] always school and church choir stuff. But I stopped [singing] at about 14/15. I'd started writing my own songs and I was performing but I got to a point where I said, "You know what? I don't actually want to do this any more." And so I spent about seven years not doing anything actually - just partying and being a reckless teenager.

It wasn't until I moved to Mexico, [and did] lots of soul searching, and came to lots of realisations... Watching bands every day playing, musicians just on the street drumming and dancing and singing. It properly woke something up in me, like, "Oh, you've got to start singing again, man".

How did you come up with the name Greentea Peng?

I was in Peru, travelling, I was about 18, and I was high as hell [cannabis is legal in Peru].

I go into this chemists and this tea box is just shining at me. I'm like, "What is that?" I go up to it and it's this bosh box of green tea - my favourite kind of green - covered in leaves and there's just this woman's body cut out with a weed bikini and it said Green Tea Seng. I was like, "Greentea Peng!", because the girl was peng.

You might have to explain what peng means for some of our readers.

Oh yeah! Just kind of like tasty, good, buff.

You first came to a wider audience with your dazzling performance on Jools Holland. What was that like?

I loved it, I'm not gonna lie. Jools Holland was something I wrote down at the beginning of my career, which I manifested.

The band [her own UK one, not Los Hedonistas] were just so gassed because everyone wants to do it. And it went really well. Obviously it was different, it's not the live show or anything, but I loved the venue. The band were amazing and we were just all so excited to be there.

I wasn't 100% happy with my performance, I thought I could have done better. I could hear my nerves and my excitement coming out in my vocals, but in the end I was like, "You know what? It's all part of it". I'm just grateful and happy to have done it.

image copyrightStefy Pocket
image captionThe singer, real name Aria Wells, hails from south London via Hastings

Well, your nerves did not come across on the TV. The lyrics to that song, Hu Man are quite philosophical and dare I say, even spiritual? You seem deeply connected to your music.

I'm definitely on a journey. I never thought I was going to be a singer. I'm not making music to be recognised as a singer. It's been a by-product of it that that has happened.

I'm literally doing my healing process in front of everyone because every song I'm writing is just me going through the works, I'm not making anything up.

I'm travelling from this place and I'm trying to get to this place. And I'm reading books, I'm experiencing life, I'm going through pain and I'm going through trials and tribulations and I'm happy, and I'm down, you know what I mean?

I understand it does come across but I don't describe my music as spiritual, because I wouldn't want to ever put myself where people think that I'm this, you know... I don't know what it is, it's just me.

Along the way you also appeared on The Streets latest album, and in their brilliant lockdown music video. It looked like you were all in a computer game.

We did that over Zoom! Oh mate, that was sick.

I don't normally get gassed really about anything. I try not to be too attached to bad feelings or good feelings, but when Mike [Skinner] hollered at me and said, "I want you to be on the album" - that's recognition from a real G.

He's totally his own thing, I see him as a poet. And I love that because I don't necessarily see myself as a singer or a rapper. I'm kind of more like a commentator or, I don't know...

I was really excited and, obviously, when I met him, he's exactly how I thought he would be. Just super cool, chatting as if we were mates from [a long] time ago.

He sent me the beat and I was like, "I'm gonna do it because it's Mike, innit?!". At first I was like, "Am I gonna be able to write anything? This is mental".

You know he did that video himself? He's a super talented guy.

Figure captionWarning: Third party content may contain adverts

Speaking of talented artists, tell us about supporting Neneh Cherry on tour in 2019.

She's an OG. She's another artist that's just in a lane of her own.

I only really got into her late, kind of the same time I discovered Erykah [Badu]. My mum showed me her quite late compared to some my other musical influences.

I remember Buffalo Stance was the first video I watched and just her charisma and the way she's just unapologetically herself, and still is. I was watching her on stage and I was like, "This woman has got proper energy." She just does her own thing.

It was funny opening her for her, especially in Manchester, because there was a lot of drunk women in the crowd down the front and I came on to open and they were like, "NENEH!!!"

I was saying on the microphone, "I'm Greentea Peng. I'm here to open for Neneh and this is my first song, Moonchild". And they were like, "MANCHILD!!!" It was hilarious.

Hopefully we'll start to see scenes like that again soon. What else would success look like for you in 2021?

I think the idea of success for me has always been calmness and to feel centred, and to have a kind of steady posture about myself that I can kind of take throughout life, no matter what it throws at me.

For instance, you know this coronavirus? At the beginning of the year I nearly lost my mind when this [stuff] kicked off. I fell very deeply down the rabbit hole, and I'm always there anyway, but I went to next levels - I had to bring myself out.

I'm doing all of the little bits I need to help me to be able to have that space - moving out of the city,

Obviously I want the album [written in 2020 about the events of last year] to go down well. I want people to receive that well and to hear it, it's quite experimental.

But in terms of myself, I feel just the sense of calmness and clarity.

image copyrightStefy Pocket
image captionShe performed at the BBC Radio 6 Music Festival in Camden in March 2020; but was also working in a bar in Dalston until early last year to make ends meet

Finally, tequila aside, do you have any advice for any potential Sound of 2022 wannabes?

I would say, be yourself fully. Actually fully believe in yourself. And also, don't strive for anything. Try not to be overly ambitious and fill your head full of desires.

Never seek gratification from recognition, do what you're doing because you love to do it, and because there's a higher intention behind it.

Stay true to yourself and things that are meant for you will come to you.

It's very easy these days to be like, "OK I don't have a million views on this song so it must be [rubbish], let me go and write". Nah man, it's not all about numbers. If there's one person that's heard that song and connected with it, that's a prize.

Figure captionWarning: Third party content may contain adverts

Obviously it's hard to survive - you need money, there's no two ways about it. I was working in a bar basically up until just the beginning of last year.

In this day and age, you've got social media and you're constantly bombarded with what everyone else is achieving, and it's easy to get wrapped up into this little race. But it's not about that, expression and art, it's about being true to yourself.

For me, all I want is to be able to be like Janis Joplin on stage, I mean just wailing, not even having to say any words, being so free and ego-less in my expression.

Just delve into the music man, if that's what it's about. Fame and money - everything comes and goes, all of these exterior things.

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Related Topics

  • Music
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