How Greentea Peng found her guardian angel in Mexico

Words: Craig Connolly
Photography: Thomas Chatt

Craig Connolly sat down with Greentea Peng in her North London flat to talk about finding her guardian angel in Mexico, healing and spirituality. Taken from District Issue 005: Rebirth, it also features a shoot by our London-based photographer Thomas Chatt.

I had a sense of apprehension before doing this interview. Greentea Peng had only ever come across well in previous interviews or videos I’d seen her in, but I knew there was something different about her that I couldn’t place. A self-awareness that persisted behind the music, tattoos and adornments.

Usually in these instances, I either find it incredibly easy to speak to the person or the polar opposite, where I become a try-hard that over- thinks the conversation. So the thought of potentially spending two hours in her flat making a show of myself didn’t really make for a good commute to Peng’s north London home.

Thankfully the former of two outcomes came to be and thanks to a warm welcome and well made cup of chamomile tea we sat down for what would become one of the most therapeutic conversations I’d had in recent memory, and the perfect eye-opener to what had led us to her in the first place.

For the uninitiated, Greentea Peng is an artist that reflects modern day Britain. Disenfranchised with what her country has become, but still incredibly proud of the atmosphere of the city that surrounds her. Her voice draws comparison to Amy Winehouse; soulful with a maturity beyond her years, but that’s where the similarities end. While Amy Winehouse was comfortable in front of a camera from a young age, Greentea Peng had a very different road to becoming the singer she is today.

Did you sing as a child?

Yeah, all the time. By the time I was 14 I was making tunes, making funky house tunes, that was when funky house was in! I got to about 15 and I just stopped, I stopped doing anything creative. I got really depressed and was having a really shit time.

Did your depression stem from a particular place?

I’ve always had a really heavy feeling that I’ve carried around with me from a young age. From as young as I can remember, sometimes I just think my brain works a bit different – I’m just quite a sad person and things just affect me differently and for a long period of time.

Your manager/guardian angel Kesh spotted you on a beach in Mexico and said that you had to be some- thing. Did people always tell you that you had to be something?

I think that had a lot to do with it, I was always singing and at school I didn’t want to shine or draw attention to myself and the singing really did that. I’d get cornered in the bathroom and they’d be like, ‘Oh, sing us a song’. School kids were always really bitchy to me and I guess I felt like I was showing off and my reaction to that was just to not do anything again.

I’ve always struggled with self-confidence issues from a young age, so it was always really hard. Even though I loved [singing], and I would lose myself on stage when I’d perform and it was the thing I wanted to do, it got to a point where I couldn’t deal with any of it. I’m really sensitive and there was a few older girls… When I look back now with hindsight it was jealousy from them, but at that age you don’t think like that. I completely took their criticism on board and let it destroy me. The little confidence I had was gone.

Would performing give you enough of a buzz to think that you could keep doing it, or did it get to the point where your confidence was too low to continue?

When anyone needed a singer they’d come to me, but I’d never been the stereotypical performing arts person. I never sing on my own unless I’m writing a song, it was always just a thing where, when I’m on stage, I’d zone out and I’d love it when I was doing it.

You were unconventionally brought to the forefront…

Yeah, I’d open my mouth and it would come out, but apart from that you’d never guess. I was part of church choirs when I was a kid but that was about it.

Before the interview started we were talking about spirituality, how much does that impact on your life?

It’s been a really recent thing. I had been in a really dark, dark place in my mind for a long time. I hate saying ‘spirituality’ as if it’s a separate thing to us, because at the end of the day that’s all we are — spirits!

Over the last couple of years I’ve gotten more into reading and tattoos. I’ve been obsessed with certain symbols from a young age, past life shit, like swastikas. Before I knew what it was I just thought it was so beautiful, just the symbol itself, nothing to do with what it was most recently related to – I’m not a racist [laughs]!

Why are tattoos important to you?

They’re part of my healing. Before I went through that transition to spirituality in my brain, I’d get tattoos for the pain. I wouldn’t really give a fuck what it was, it was the adrenaline of the whole process of it, it was like a ritual.

When did you start getting tattooed?

Young, 14 maybe. My first tattoo was actually an Om, I’ve been obsessed with Om for a time without necessarily knowing the meaning behind it. I just knew that it was everything good. Even now it’s funny, people are so judgemental, they don’t attack, but they make me feel that I need to justify my tattoos. They ask, ‘Do you do yoga, do you do this, do you do that?’, but really it’s nothing to do with that, it’s more about the healing. They’re reminders, I used to look in the mirror and the things I would think were not nice, now I look in the mirror and I see a fucking Om on my forehead it’s pretty hard to feel the way I did.

Do you have a thick skin?

I’m still bare sensitive, but I use it and I translate it and I turn it into power, for myself. That’s my growth. I’ve been that person who has looked at people, and it’s conditioned from a young age, judged them. I’ve done it and I’ve experienced it, and obviously I’m a hot head and my first reaction is to get aggy, but I’m growing. The older I get the more time I take to react. I get funny looks, but I am a reflection that person needs to purge. We’re all reflections.

I read that Jon Ronson book ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed’ and a psychologist said that women are way more likely to get vitriolic abuse online. Are you able to say, ‘It’s their problem not mine’ yet?

More and more, I wouldn’t say I’m a pro at it yet, because I’m still a baby, but definitely more and more. I feel like it’s not the first life where I’ve experienced it. You know what I mean? So I feel like I’m kind of used to it and I have been from a young age, because people chatted shit about my tattoos before I had tattoos on my face. I was still getting the same bullshit.

I wanted to talk about your move to Mexico. Was it a family decision?

No, no, I went on my own. I moved with my boyfriend at the time. I love travelling innit, I love going to new places. So from like 17 or 18 I’ve been bouncing around.
This time I was like, ‘I wanna go Mexico’, and I did. In my head I didn’t want to come back. I remember my mom didn’t want me to leave this time. Before I left I was in a proper bad way, addicted to Xanax and stuff. I think she thought I was going to die out there. I was just banging them everyday; didn’t want to deal with nothing, so I couldn’t. That went on for nearly a year and in my head I knew Mexico was going to fix me, so that’s why I went.

What would you attribute the healing process to? Was it the change in weather? Was it all the stuff you had going on around you?

It was the space to unravel and look at everything from a different perspective. And also when I first got there I was still banging out the Xanax, but after a while I started working on this beach retreat, this yoga retreat, and I’d get to sit through all the self-help talks. And a proper element of it was bullshit, like a product they were selling, but I was getting the benefits of it because the stuff they’re talking about isn’t made up. I was involved in that and everyday being up with the sunrise and going to bed early and looking at the ocean and shit. I think finally it was just starting to sing again, my whole personality just changed.

So you were just on the beach and you were approached by KESH, who is your “guardian angel”, but professionally your manager?

She’s way more than a manager, yeah.

How did it happen?

Literally she drove past me and she was looking at me, and two hours later we were at the same place on the beach and we had a mutual friend, but she came up to me. We sat and spent the whole day together just chatting about music and stuff. She made me feel so safe in the space, I just sank into her. I’ve never had that feeling off another woman before, other than my mom. Always the feelings I get off girls are just like… The feelings are definitely to do with me too, stuff I’m carrying from school.

Where did it go from there? Did you move back to England?

No, I stayed in Mexico for another six months. Literally that week was my birthday, I was turning 22. A few months before I met KESH I was watching bands in town and I was like, ‘Aw I wish I had a fucking band’. I did an open mic, just before my birthday, and I think I sang a Lily Allen song? And then they asked me to do an Amy Winehouse song because everyone is always like, ‘Oh you sound like Amy Winehouse’, but it’s just the London accent innit? I left and the guitarist came and chased after me and was like, ‘Girl! We need a singer come join our band’. After that we had a couple rehearsals practicing Arctic Monkey songs and stuff, it was proper sick bruv. And then a week later we had shows, and I was making money. For out there? I was making money. Before that I was working 12 hour days for 200 pesos a day, that’s like a tenner and with the shows I was getting 1500 a show. Which is only like 40 quid, but for out there it was like this is sick. So that proper helped me build my confidence. And then I moved back to England and started making songs here.

Do you think that London stifles creativity?

No, I love London. I can’t be here the whole year because I am affected by the weather quite a lot. London is my city, it does spark creativity, but you need the right balance. It is hard to create the balance because there are too many things that are difficult; how expensive it is for start. I am so blessed, I am so grateful to the universe, I’ve always been able to stay at a mates or stay with KESH. I’ve never had that worry about rent. This is the first crib I’ve had in London, the first crib I’ve had since I was 16.

Do you feel more encouraged by the future today, than you ever have before?

For sure, I’m always saying this to my friends when I’m buzzing. Compared to where I was, even when I was 15, waking up and just wanting to go back to bed, life was a drag. Thinking of the future was 100 per cent daunting, but now I’m just gassed. There was one wicked woman I met in Mexico and she always said, ‘Have the highest expectations, but no attachments to the outcome’. I proper love that. I’ve never been a person who thinks they’re going to do great things. I’m chill and I’m happy being chill. I definitely believe in myself a little bit more. I have confidence in the universe, things will work out exactly how they’re meant to. I understand that now. I’m in the process of surrendering to the universe.