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Amber Liu

On bridging music and identity


Talent: Amber Liu @amberliu

Words: Jiselle Liu @jiselle03 & Laura Sirikul @lsirik

Photos: Peter Yang @yopeteryang

Fashion: Hannah Kerri @hannahkerrri

Makeup: Christopher Miles @christophermilesmakeup using @shiseido

Hair: Aika Flores @by.aikaflores for Exclusive Artists using @fatboyhair

It was a cold and rainy Saturday evening in Los Angeles. Most people would avoid going out, especially steering clear of the busy freeways and slippery streets of LA in torrential rain. But inside the historic Fonda Theatre in Hollywood, a large, packed crowd waited in anticipation for singer-songwriter Amber Liu to take the stage. Bright lights filled the stage with a giant screen in the back that illuminated her name. Launching a world tour can be daunting, but the 32-year-old artist behind the No More Sad Songs tour was ready to command the stage.

“I'm a huge perfectionist,” Liu tells Timid over Zoom a week prior to her concert. “I still am when it comes to performing, but now I have this flexibility and this calmness in my heart and I'm at peace with it. I'm still nervous, but when the music starts, I'm in my zone.”

From her upbeat pop songs to her soothing ballads, it was hard not to be mesmerized with Liu’s stage presence. She puts her all into every choreographed dance move and reaches those hard-to-reach notes, even if it strains her vocal cords a bit. Liu is a professional and makes it seem effortless.

This comes as no surprise for many as Liu’s been performing since she was 16 years old, when she debuted as a member of the South Korean girl group f(x) in 2009. She began her solo activities in 2015 with her debut EP Beautiful, followed by four more EPs, with the latter three—X, y?, and Z!—being a trilogy series. Following the conclusion of the series, Liu released a diverse array of songs. From fresh tracks like “ILY,” “No More Sad Songs,” “Can’t Go Yet,” and “From Dusk Till Dawn,” to a revamped version of her earlier hit “EASIER” with the release of the aptly titled “HARDER,” Liu continues to showcase her musical versatility and innovative exploration, creating music in both English and Mandarin.

Now she’s taking it on the road across the United States, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand, and Asia, which marks a significant milestone in her career as she embarks on her first-ever solo headline tour in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Every show is different,” Liu gushes. “ I'm just really excited for this.”

During our chat with Liu, she shares her enthusiasm for connecting with fans on her tour and reflects on her growth as an artist as well as how her music has helped her connect with her parents.

Timid Magazine: First of all, you’re kicking off your global tour on the 17th! What are you looking forward to the most?

Amber Liu: Number one, it's my first time performing in a lot of these cities. Even though I went there with my group back in the day, it's my first time solo. I'm just excited to meet the fans in each city because every city has their own vibe. [...] Some of them are like—I get this a lot now that I've been traveling a lot more—”I've been following you for the past 15 years” and it's their first time meeting me. It means the world to me. I always felt like I lived in a bubble. I'm just doing my thing, and then my music or my YouTube content has made an impact on somebody that I don't know. It's affirming. This is the reason why I do music. This is the reason why I'm still in this industry. This is why I love what I do.

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TM: This will be your first solo headline tour in Asia—how do you think this experience will be different from your previous performances there?

AL: I feel like since my last tour—which was three years ago and just North America—from that Amber to this Amber… I feel very different, not only just as a person but as a performer. Even my choreographer says I'm a different dancer now. I know I'm a different singer.

TM: You've embraced various identities—Asian American, K-pop idol, songwriter, artist, among others. Has navigating these labels been more limiting or empowering for you?

AL: I would say three years ago, [...] it would have caused more stress. I would be like, “Oh, I feel the limitations of every single thing. How do I fit into these labels more as I'm creating new things?” Now, it's more like—these things helped me identify what I'm doing, but it's not stopping me from doing anything. The perspective has definitely shifted. Now I'm just like, “You know, what? Put ‘chameleon’ in there as well.” Now I'm taking all these labels and mixing them together. It's just an infinity list, and I hope that's something that constantly builds over the years because I don't want to be an artist that settles. I always want to be pushing myself. I want to do crazy things. I always want to be out of my comfort zone.

TM: How do you ensure you don't confine yourself within these boxes and allow yourself room for personal and artistic growth?

AL: I feel like the foundation of whenever I start something is knowing if it's true to me. If there's no honesty in what I'm doing, then I don't want to do it. That's number one.

Number two, I feel like one emotion can be expressed or visualized in different ways or sound differently. I have my team to thank for that. [...] I'm so blessed to be surrounded by so many people that I can genuinely feel care about me. They're my friends, my family. [...] I never want to be in a place where everybody's like, “Oh, yes, yes, yes, sure. Okay.” Sometimes there are times to agree, but I love when my team disagrees with me, because it challenges the way that I think.

TM: I’d love to talk a bit about your time as a K-pop idol. During your time in f(x), how did you manage to strike a balance between expressing your individual identity and aligning with the group’s image?

AL: I think this is a two-parter one off the bat. I felt that the foundational identity for me in f(x), because it was androgynous—I had that going for me, so that was kind of natural. But I also didn't feel like I had a balance because I was so young, and I didn't know what I wanted. So I also felt like, “Oh, this isn't me” at the same time. Looking back on that time, it was just a lot of “Okay, I'm just gonna take it as it comes” and “Do I actually feel good about this?” and trying to process that. And I guess the processing time was just many years delayed. So yeah, there's a lot of good and bad that came out of that experience.

TM: As an androgynous artist who did not conform to the typical female K-pop idol image, how did you overcome pressure to comply with societal expectations in how you present yourself?

AL: I feel like when I was in the group, I actually didn’t feel secure. I was a child star. That's literally what it is. I was still listening to everybody. There were definitely opinions thrown at me like, “Oh, you're a kid, you don't know any better” from people surrounding me. “You shouldn't be doing this.” But there at the same time was, “You should do what you want.” I had two very extreme opinions fighting at me, and I was just like, “I don't know.” There is a side of me that is very people pleaser, that is very obedient, but there is also the rebellious side of me where it's just like, “No, I don't want to do any of that. I want to do it this way.” So, you know, throughout my teens and my early 20s, it very much was a very internal battle of “What is Amber?”

TM: Transitioning from that to being an Asian American artist in the American music industry, where you’ve also had to overcome preconceived notions and other barriers related to race, how do you think artists can actively contribute to pushing boundaries and improve representation in the industry?

AL: I think the way that I'm doing it is to not think of it as like, “Oh, I have to represent. This is my chance.” It's a lot of pressure when I think about it like that. But if I change my perspective and attain that goal with the mindset of, “I'm just going to be me, unapologetically me, and pursue what I want,” that message will maybe naturally spread. Because I do really want to represent my community, and hopefully be a leader in the community in some way or another, but I also think I psych myself out, and that kind of backfires in my head. So I'm just gonna let it happen naturally, hopefully. I just want to share my story, and whoever's willing to listen, I'm more than appreciative and thankful for that.

One thing that I definitely changed within the past year, when I was really struggling with whether I should continue in the industry or just take a backseat and do producing, [was that] I had this quarter life crisis. The reason why I decided to continue in the industry as an artist, and with even more confidence and more of a mission… I thought, “I'm going to sing to my younger self, because little Amber back then didn't know what she wanted. She didn't have a lot of people to look up to. And hopefully, when she sees me on TV or on YouTube or on Instagram, she knows that she's not alone.”

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TM: What I love about you as an artist too is that as an Asian American and part of the diaspora, you worked in K-pop and C-pop, but you also don't forget your roots. You have an English album, but you also have Mandarin songs.

AL: Yeah, for sure. You hit it on the spot. Are you reading my mind? [laughs] When I started working in Asia, I loved how music transcended language. That's why I fell in love with K-pop, C-pop, J-pop… so many different genres. The words I might not understand, but there's a feeling.

Growing up, I was very distant from my parents. My dad was always working, my mom only spoke Mandarin, and I didn't grow up speaking Mandarin. [...] Throughout the years, being away from my family, I really felt like I had no stable ground. But my parents always had this unconditional support for me. The typical stereotype is that Asian kids don't pursue a job in the arts because it's not stable. [...] Their life was not stable, and that's what they wanted for me.

Going back to China the past two years and promoting there, I've basically gotten a crash course in Mandarin. I'm learning songs every other week, and I don't know how to read anything, but I'll try my best to memorize and learn the pronunciation.

I really choose the songs on my album that I want to put into Mandarin, because I want my mom to hear it. I want my mom to be able to understand what I'm singing. She's always like, “Amber, I really liked that song, but I don't understand what you're saying.” That's what she would always say to me throughout my K-pop career, and I would try to teach her a little Korean. But my mom's a lot older now, and I was like, “You know what, this is the time.” [Now] she's like, “Oh, Amber, I really like it. Your pronunciation is so good.” I'm like, “Yeah, okay, it's paying off. I'm getting there.” And now, my Chinese is pretty good. [...] For two years of learning, I think I'm pretty good. My mom and I talk probably 95% in Mandarin now. [...] So yeah, having that connection finally with my parents. It's the most rewarding thing.

TM: Looking back, which album or song do you feel you connected with the most so far, and why?

AL: Oh, this is hard. Of all the questions, this was the hardest. I think the y? EP is probably one of the most significant to me, just because it was the first time where I was really, I guess, tunnel vision in this melancholy, happy, sad world. Usually my songs are super happy or super sad, but that was the first time where I was actually learning to process things, trying to figure out what I was feeling, and starting to write down what I was thinking in a more non-filtered way. I caught myself filtering my own words and my own lyrics, and I wanted to really start opening up and being conversational rather than trying to be vague and artsy with my lyrics. It was just, “This is how I feel. This is me in the most simplest way.”

TM: You wrapped up your trilogy in 2022 with Z! and released a few singles last year. Are there any future projects that you can share?

AL: One of my producers is coming on tour with me, and he's actually my music director. We've prepared a couple of demos—these are not in any way finished, but we're just going to play it, and we're gonna have the fans choose which one they want to hear. I thought that would be fun, because every city might be feeling a different vibe. [...] That's something that we were planning to do. So I hope that the fans have fun with that.

What I love about being so close to the fans is that when I hear their responses, I can kind of understand the song a little bit better, too. Because yes, my music is for me. It’s my therapy. It's what I love to do, and I share it with everybody. But also in the end, after I release it, it's theirs. It's not mine anymore. It's for everybody.

TM: Are we gonna see more director Amber as well?

AL: Yeah, I love directing. I guess I direct when it's necessary, because I sometimes feel like maybe another creative will make this better, or give it new life, or see something that I'm not seeing. Unless I'm super, super clear on something, I actually love the creative process of collabing with another director. I have so much fun just throwing ideas in the room and hearing their ideas. It's always a melting pot of ideas.

TM: Do you have your next concept in the works? What can you share with us?

AL: Oh, I've already planned out my next hair. I planned it out. The color will change. That's all I can say. When I'm picturing the color on me, it's gonna be cute.

The No More Sad Songs tour kicked off in Seattle on January 17, 2024 and will span 9 cities across the United States, Canada, and London as well as 8 cities across Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

Disclaimer: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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