Amber Talks Feeling 'Lost at Sea,' the 'White Noise' of Her Career, Importance of Language & #MeToo
Back in 2009, Amber Liu arrived on the K-pop scene as one-fifth of girl group f(x). A tomboyish rapper, the California-born star spent the next decade exploring her artistry both in and outside of the South Korean music scene. While the experimental pop team hasn’t released any new music together since 2016, each of the members has pursued a solo career, and Amber has come into her own as a Transpacific singer-songwriter based out of both Seoul and Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, she signed with Stateside representation and released her Rogue Rouge mixtape, and now she’s embarking on her upcoming Gone Rogue tour in December. But before touring, she first had to release two intensely intimate songs.
Out on Thursday, Amber’s “White Noise” and “Lost at Sea” were written a few years ago and reflect on the hardships of both the star’s personal and professional lives through a mellow brand of emotive EDM. Billboard went through the new songs with Amber just ahead of their release and discussed their inspirations, the importance of her friends and family, #MeToo, and her evolving artistry.
“White Noise” and “Lost at Sea” have two different ideas behind them. Why did you decide to release them as a paired set?
The producers on the tracks, Darren [Smith] and Sean [Alexander], I’ve been working with them for many years now and I think this was around that era of me trying to just try new things. And they were very, very supportive of doing that. I just thought that the EDM-inspired elements definitely sound-wise paired really well. But also it’s the progression of my story, I guess. I wrote both songs at similar times, so I thought this is the next step of the story that I want to show to people.
What is that story of Amber that you want to be telling people right now?
I guess my whole thing at the moment is just “evolution.” If I could just put it into one word. It’s about my journey of the past 10 years that I’ve been doing this for. I think there’s a side that I really want to show to the fans that kind of just shows me growing up a little bit. Or a lot. I don’t know. I don’t want to force anybody, like “I’M GROWN UP!” I think that definitely as I’ve gotten older my perspective changes. My love of music has definitely not changed, my love of the arts has definitely not changed. I guess I’m not the 15-year-old Amber I was 10, well now 11, years ago. I do my taxes. I do my own bookkeeping. I pay rent.
Your latest releases have come very far from your earliest sound in f(x), where you started out as a rapper. It really has been, as you say, an evolution. So what part of that growth inspired “White Noise”?
I wrote “Lost at Sea” and “White Noise” around two to three years ago, and I remember at that time -- it was that phase of my life where I was just so confused about everything. Like what I was doing, why I’m doing things, where I need to be. Everything was always in a static, and I was like, “It’s like a white noise.” So that’s the title of the song. [Laughs] There’s that lyric that constantly repeats, “I’m telling you don’t lose your way home.” And I think that was the little voice in my head saying, “Though you’re confused now, you’re trying to do everything and you can’t just figure it out. Don’t forget where you came from. Or don’t forget who you are in that process.” Did you see the music video by any chance?
In the music video there are these bears that come out. Cute little teddy bears. That [first] bear is actually my childhood bear. I have it still. That was given to me when I was born. The funny story with that bear is, I remember when I first left for Korea I left the bear in the States. I left it there and then I think, when I was in Korea because it is a foreign country for me, it never felt like home. And then when I went back to the States, I took the bear back to Korea. And I was like, “Okay, now this is home.” So I was hoping that wherever this bear stuck with me, it would feel like home. And that’s what it represents, hopefully figuring out where this home is. Later on in the music video you see that I trade it in for another bear. That symbolizes me, basically, because the industry or people in society want you to be certain things you have to be. This bigger, made-up character. And that’s what I thought I needed to do. And I tried. And, you know, in the end I couldn’t lose my first bear. And yea, that’s the inspiration behind it. The bear story.
Is the song talking to little Amber, or talking to people who you think are going through similar situations?
Both. Definitely it is a story about me talking to myself, but as I felt writing this song– Me and a lot of my friends, I know people around me as well, we all go through this phase, constant phases of being confused, not knowing the hell what we’re doing. So not only is this song for me but for everyone, and it’s dedicated to my friends. Definitely with everybody’s stories that I’ve been hearing for such a long time, or when my friends vent to me about their problems. All that, all of their stories get integrated into my story as well.
You mentioned how the theme of it is finding your way home, so a few years since you’ve written “White Noise” how do you feel about where you’re at?
Looking back now, I definitely feel like my static has lessened. I feel like, “Wow, I didn’t know anything back then.” In the process, in the span of two to three years, all the things that I learned and all the experiences that I was able to be apart of– I guess it just gives me confirmation in my heart that it will always get better if I work towards it.
Changing things up, “Lost at Sea” is kind of a dark love song.
Yeah. [Laughs] Yes, it is technically a love song. When you meet a lot of people and you date somebody or you’re just in a relationship with friends, lovers, business or whatever it may be, there are people that are just toxic to you and you don’t even know it yourself. I remember in this specific relationship that I was having, in my perspective, I did everything that I could. And there was fighting, no communication going on, but we still loved each other, but then nothing would get better. Because of that emptiness-slash-craziness, I just felt like I was lost in the middle of the ocean, cause waves will take you different places but you never know where you’re going. It’s just this infinite ocean you keep being lost in. In the lyrics it talks about “I’m sorry I let us down,” ["‘Cause I let us down/ I let you down"] but I also blame so-and-so, that you’re like this ["‘Cause no matter what I do/ It don’t get through to you"]. It was like that whole mental back-and-forth that I had. “I’m sorry that I did this. But wait, you’re wrong. But then- I don’t know.” It was that whole emotional instability that goes on in the relationship as well.
Both songs are pretty introspective and about personal hardships, but were written a few years ago. Is that where you’re still at?
I’m still tying up some loose ends. One of my goals always, when I write music, is that it’s not only me sharing my story with the fans, it’s also a reminder to myself that, “Hey, I said this so that I need to grow from it.” With “White Noise,” it’s out there. I have to remind myself that I’m going to be lost, but don’t lose your way home. “Lost at Sea,” I just have to be able to identify a problem and be able to work through it or identify when relationships are -- “Oh, this is going south.” Having those two things in mind, I know that I’m still in a “White Noise” phase. I think I’ll always be in a “White Noise” phase. But it’s always more clear. I’m always “Lost at Sea”; I’ve been in another relationship where I was in the same thing. I hate having a problem and not being able to identify or being able to know what to do generally, I guess that’s where I’m going. I need to know everything. But it’s getting better as I learn from my experiences or my mistakes. I will be forever in the “White Noise” phase. Yay.
You released the songs right after announcing your Gone Rouge tour. How does this tie in to that and your previous Rogue Rouge mixtape?
Rogue Rouge, to me, was the start of me trying to figure out if one of my missions was possible, and that mission was that "friends in business" thing. “Can I work with my friends and, hopefully with all the experiences I’ve had in the industry so far, could I test out my solutions to certain things?” Like delays, communication lines; it was all technical and logistics in that sense. And also, can I put out good music at the same time, a great project? So it was a big experiment between business and creative because sometimes you can’t have both. With me and my friends, we really just kind of came together and just said –sorry– “Fuck it, let’s try.” I have endless gratitude to my friends, I love them so much. They supported me along the way, to have helped me to grow through that whole process. And we made what we could, and we’re definitely learning to make our content always better. That project means everything to me, just for the fact that I did it with my friends. And I wanted to give something back to the fans as well. That was the number one thing, giving back to my fans. I wanted to give something free. [We were] putting out there what we love, what we do for the art. And we hoped everybody liked it.
With the response that I got, I was just so happy because it’s very different from what I was doing and I think in the process… Every year when I write music, sounds slowly change and trends kind of change as well. I don’t know if I’m able to say this but I think I am, I feel like maybe the fans and the regular public didn’t really understand what was going on between my musical growth in between. It probably kind of was a smack in the face like, “Here’s a bunch of music! It’s all different now.” But everybody was very supportive of it and that’s why I wanted to make a tour around this mixtape.
This is my first solo tour in general and it’s going to be in the States. I just want to use this opportunity to, number one, put on a great show for the fans but also to get to know them, be more intimate with them, play with them. It’s been a long time since I toured and I’m just really excited about touring because it’s going to be fun. I’m doing it with friends too. The choreographer is a homie, the band are homies, I’m touring with Justin Park which is going to be freaking awesome. I’m just really excited. The whole crew is coming together, and we just want to put on a good show for everybody.
You mentioned that you feel people may not really know where you’re at right now musically, and you’re also in a state of flux right now between working in South Korea and the U.S.
Yea... So, kind of working back-and-forth is interesting because [laughs] there are these times I hate during the day because if I’m in LA, it hits around seven or eight PM. I hate my life. That’s when all of Asia wakes up and everyone’s texting me. So I’m just working later hours. And when I’m in Korea, I get texts really early in the morning or wake up really early in the morning for conference calls. It’s an adjustment. It’s definitely something that I can, [that] I’m able to handle, I think, due to just being a K-pop idol for so long. I’m pretty sure everybody knows how late the hours are in the K-pop industry. It’s just more now that I’m doing the logistic stuff, adulting very hard. It’s good. We’re just grinding right now. It’s hectic but it’s fun.
If someone introduced you as a K-pop idol right now, what would your reaction be?
I’m not going to deny it because it’s definitely where I started, where I began my career. An update to that is that I do other music as well. I’ve never been someone to be so serious about titles. I know my managers need a title, I know my publicist needs a title, or something. But I’m just Amber. Of course, my background will confuse a lot of people because I was born and raised in the States, I went to Korea, I spent 10 years in a K-pop group and doing solo work there and now I’m back in the States. I kind of set myself up for that since I do everything. But when people call me a “K-pop idol,” yea, if you want to call me that go ahead. But I’m just Amber. I’m an artist. I speak different languages. I guess if people just keep it at that there’s really no bad way to say what I do. I just do a lot of things. That’s what I should say in interviews. “Hi, my name is Amber. I do a lot of things.”
Will you focus on English music or do you think you’ll release music in other languages?
Oh, [I’m] definitely going to release music in other languages. I feel like me growing up as a second-generation Chinese kids in the States– my mom doesn’t speak English. I didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin. I didn’t speak it at all. I always had this disconnect with my mom because of the language barrier. It would always just be really simple Chinese. “Mom, can I eat?” “Can I go here?” “Can you drop me off?” And when I went to Korea– the last people you want to call are your parents when you’re in trouble or having a hard time. I remember 2012, 2011, or 2013– in that span– I was just so out. My mind was just done. I was like, “I need to call my mom because I know she will understand.” My mom is the sweetest person I’ve ever met. She will never hurt a fly. She’s been 150% supportive of everything I’ve done. She’s never said “No” to anything, she just says, “If you want to do it, work hard and go do it.” My dad is more like, “I worry about you.” My dad’s a total dad. My mom’s 100%, “If it makes you happy, go do it.” So going back to that 2011-2013-ish of my life, I was like, “Let me call my mom.” I remember talking in my broken Chinese to her for two hours at five in the morning. It just made me realize how much language is so important to people and how it connects people.
I don’t want to lose that connection with people, and that whole experience with my mom isn’t just like, “Oh, just because I can speak it I’m going to sing in it.” There’s that connection that I have, language. I’ve met some of my best friends in Korea who only speak Korean. I’ve met some of my best friends who only speak Mandarin. There’s people in Japan– I barely speak any Japanese but I’m totally cool with them because we just talk body language. I never want to lose that connection. I have ambition to try and speak every language in the whole world, that’s totally not possible for me. I’m going to try. See what happens.
Both songs are about internal turmoil, so if you don’t mind me asking, last October, you posted on Instagram about one of the most tumultuous social phenomenons of our time, #MeToo. You wrote that you wanted to add your voice as well. Why was it so important for you to speak up, and what does it mean for you coming from the Korean music world?
It’s how the #MeToo movement started. People don’t understand that these things go on even in entertainment. It’s something that I think -- it’s happened to me before, and it’s happened to friends of mine. It’s sad to see that there are a lot of people that go through it. If everybody starts speaking up about it, I just hope that whenever someone thinks they can take advantage of people and abuse their power, that karma’s going to come back to you. That’s such a not Amber thing to say. I’m always about love. [But] if you’re going to make really bad decisions and do horrible things to people, I just hope that you learn your lesson in some way.
It’s just really… It’s something that I think really needs to be talked about. We’re all scared. People who are victims are always scared. Again, people that aren’t affected by it or aren’t even involved in it don’t know that it happens. They think, “Oh yeah, 2018. This stuff doesn’t happen anymore.” It happens every day. It’s just something that I think people have to not assume that [it doesn’t exist]. People just have to do everything that they can to get a role or get a job. To be really honest, I’m not the poster child to talk about this in every way. I just have to. There are things that have happened to me where I’ve been extremely uncomfortable, where I’ve been in situations where I didn’t have a choice, where I thought I didn’t have a choice, where I was forced into certain things. And that goes for my friends as well. However, in an industry where it’s all about fun and entertainment, a happy world, these things happen. You shouldn’t assume that just because our whole -- that industry, or any industry, that stuff doesn’t exist because it does. And it’s sickening.
I think people want to play it off like, “No, it doesn’t exist. It’s fine.” Like, no dude. We have to talk about this because it happens every day. We can’t be oblivious to [it], and we have to find a solution, hopefully by treating each other with respect and treating people the way we want to be treated. Finding ways to talk about it, and also to find resolve to it is what we need to work towards. It’s going to take time, and I’m not saying, “We need to find a solution right now!” We need to talk about it, identify what the problem is, where it’s coming from, and try to find a solution to fix [the power imbalance]. I think that’s what we have to strive for. As a society, we evolve. Hopefully we can come to a compromise where it’s for the betterment of society. That’s what I see it as.