Always marching to her own beat, Amber Liu skateboarded onto the Staples Center stage at the start of her set at KCON LA last weekend. Androgynous, tattooed and outspoken, the K-pop star is as atypical as they come. She’s also one of the genre’s most versatile artists.
Since debuting as a member of the eclectic girl group f(x) in 2009, Amber has attracted fans with her frank style and relatable personality. The Los Angeles-born musician has risen steadily from rapper of the popular group to a singer-songwriter in her own right. She released her first solo EP, Beautiful, last year followed by several singles. A late, surprise addition to the KCON LA 2016 lineup, the homegrown star partied it up onstage Saturday night before getting introspective with the emotionally raw “Borders.” When Amber reappeared Sunday to MC and sing a duet with bestie Eric Nam, the crowd again roared with approval to see her and hear the pair blend their gentle voices together.
Meeting with Billboard on Sunday afternoon, a relaxed Amber didn’t look like someone whose schedule was altered last minute and brought her halfway around the world to perform a handful of songs. With natural-looking makeup and wearing a Kurt Cobain T-shirt and jeans (including a cigarette partially covered in electrical tape due to potential censoring in the Korean media), the K-pop singer appeared relaxed and at ease ahead of the second night’s concert. The 23-year-old pop star openly discussed her songwriting inspiration, expressed the struggles of emigrating to Korea to pursue a career, and talked up some of her favorite (and entirely unrelated) musicians.
You were added to KCON last minute so how does it feel to be here?
It’s awesome. I wasn’t expecting to go home for such a long time. I actually got a lot of things lined up to work on and then to suddenly have this opportunity to go back home and perform here is just amazing.
And you were able to perform at Staples Center in your hometown. Was your family here to watch you last night?
Yea, they were here the first day of the main show. I got to see my mom in the first time in like a year and a half… Whoops! Sorry, Mama’le. I love you!
Last night you performed “Shake That Brass” and “Borders.” That was the live premiere of “Borders,” right?
Yea! It’s so weird. It’s a coincidence. That song obviously meant something to me and for the first time for me to be performing it at the Staples Center in my hometown, this is like, the feels are coming on. I’m just like augh! I started stuttering in the middle of my talk. I didn’t even know… I didn’t get emotional but- OK. I got a little emotional last night. I didn’t cry though. Held back the tears. I feel like it’s such a blessing and I’m so thankful that I’m able to stand on stage and share my story with people.
What sort of story are you trying to tell through the song?
I’ve always felt like, you know, there’s this imaginary wall that we ourselves put up or others do by saying that we can’t do something. Definitely, for example, people always told me, “Don’t do this because of the failure of this. That it’s risk taking. And after a while I just thought to myself, “How am I going to learn and find what I want without failure? Without trying things?” And I wanted to cross that line pretty much. And, you know, my image itself isn’t the stereotypical norm of what a female would look like and that was always a big influence behind that song. Challenging the norm is what that song was basically about.
And you also addressed that on the song “Beautiful.”
Yes, a lot of self finding. The reason I connected with music was because of the stories that people were telling and making me feel when I listened to a song. I guess, as me, I wanted to share my story with people. I definitely see people and hear, “Amber, you’re a role model.” And I’m always like, “Am I?” If I can give something to the next generation I want to give a message of positivity, to believe in themselves, because I think the world has just a lot of unnecessary stresses to be a certain way, look a certain way, do certain things. But I think in the end everybody is their own individual and beautiful in their own way, whatever shape or size they are. I think that’s something we should constantly remind ourselves of and that’s what I wanted to tell everybody.
You have a very bright image with “Shake That Brass” and within f(x), so how has it been to mature and showcase a more introspective side?
Well, my back hurts cause I’m getting older. [Laughs] What I think is so awesome about music is that it doesn’t have to be one thing. It’s an art. I, as a human, am goofy one day. You’re sad one day, you’re hyper another, you’re really serious another. I think it’s a way to express human emotion. Hmm, that sounds scientific, sorry! [Laughs] But, yea, I just want to express as much as I can with whatever emotion I have at that moment and want to put it into a song. If I’m not feeling it today, if I’m really angry today, [if] I’m extremely happy, [if] I love someone. I don’t know. Just the stupid, simple things in life.
Is that what your thought process is like when you’ve been writing and producing songs?
Well, “Shake That Brass” was just really like, “Do you want to write a song about being stupid?” And we kept hearing the brass sound and were just like, “Oh! We can play ‘shake that ass’ into ‘Shake That Brass!’ Oh, that’s funny!” We just bounce off ideas. And other songs are basically just about me. One song that I have is called “Love Run” and it’s basically about a dog called Hachiko in Japan. The dog waits for its owner and I thought, “oh no!” I have my dog too and I was just like, “You love me so much I’m going to write a song about you.” Just different perspectives because there’s so much cool stuff in the world. I think we should all try to seek out that knowledge and those cool stories.
Just back to something you said earlier, that “Borders” was about psychological boundaries. At first glance, the song looks like it’s about your transition from the US to K-pop.
It actually is as well. There’s a lot of things. All my songs are mix of a lot of stuff. “Borders” is about the borders people put on you and the actual physical border. You know me moving to Asia definitely. People who have lived overseas know this. Like, there are different ways to pay for food. “Do I leave tip? Do I not?” Not in Seoul. After I debuted I got a lot closer to my parents. My parents were also immigrants as well. From Asia. I was talking to my mom a lot. My mom’s lived in America for over 30 years and she still doesn’t speak English very well. I’m trying to learn more Chinese to speak with her. As my Chinese was getting better I’d start asking her, “Mom, when I’m in Korea I’m having this type of trouble. How was it for you?” And she’s like, “I went through that exact same thing.” She’d tell me stories about when she was transitioning to America. I’m just like… Dang! Crossing borders!
So did you like K-pop before you crossed those borders to pursue a career there?
I loved K-pop. I just love music. Every genre of music. Country, rock. I originally first loved punk rock. Pop punk. I don’t know, just rock in general. And getting to rap. And now K-pop. Different types of music. I love everything. Definitely K-pop was something awesome and on my list.
So what sort of music have you been listening to lately?
I listen to Eric Nam. My friend Eric Nam. He’s awesome! And f(x). If you don’t know f(x), you should listen to them. I think they’re a really cool group. [I have] no association with them but they’re awesome. [Laughs] Oh and this girl named Luna. She’s in that group and I think her EP Free Somebody was awesome so I think you should definitely listen to that. And this girl named Amber… This list can go on! [Laughs]
Do you have any final words to end with?
I just want to in the future make more awesome stuff and I hope people can look forward to that.