Hanging out in Los Angeles’s Koreatown one summer day in 2008, Amber Liu felt a tap on her shoulder. When she turned around, a scout from SM Entertainment, one of South Korea’s largest entertainment companies, handed her the details for their global auditions. Known for launching many K-pop stars such as BoA, Girls’ Generation and Shinee, the entertainment giant was hunting new talent. Her unusual look – petite, athletic and tomboyish – had caught the scout’s eye.
The next day, she was at the audition. “I sang My Heart Will Go On. When they asked me to dance, I just did some two-step,” says Liu, 27, laughing at the memory of trying to hit Celine Dion’s power chords. “I did a few more rounds [of auditions], and next thing, I was in Korea.”
She’s speaking on the phone, on her way to sound check for her opening-night concert in Fresno, Calif.
Liu recently launched an EP titled X and is currently on a 24-city North American tour. She performs at Vogue Theatre in Vancouver on Thursday – her only Canadian stop. Born and raised in L.A. to Taiwanese immigrants, Liu is one of the first few non-Korean artists to make it big in the industry.
About a year after that first audition, and a gruelling training period typical in K-pop, Liu made her stage debut as part of the new girl group f(x). She was about to turn 17 and f(x) became a huge sensation almost overnight.
It’s taken her a while to take the next step. For all its challenges – the intense regimen and accompanying loneliness – her contract with SM Entertainment was like a security blanket. But eventually, Liu felt she needed to evolve, first stepping away from f(x) to release a solo album, Beautiful, in 2015, and then leaving SM Entertainment in 2019.
So does she still identify as a K-pop star?
“It’s what I have been doing for the past decade, you know,” Liu says, her voice pondering the semantics. “Just because I am doing things in English right now doesn’t mean I won’t revisit [K-pop]. It’s where I started. I owe a whole lot to my fans, who’ve followed me into my independent music right now. … I’m just really taking my time, just trying one thing at a time.”
In fact, Liu never even imagined herself a K-pop idol. She’d grown up listening to Linkin Park, Blink-182 and Sum 41, and spent her spare time on her high school’s track field or basketball courts.
Her discovery of Mandopop (Mandarin pop), J-pop (Japanese pop) and K-pop during a trip to Taiwan, shortly before she was scouted, provided a way to get in touch with a culture she was disconnected from, she says. Her parents lived in a mostly white neighbourhood in Los Angeles. She had only two Asian friends. One of those friends, Ryan Yoo, now works with her as a music producer, including on Beautiful.
“I was just obsessed with everything about the culture, and I was really wanting to learn about this other new world that I never knew of.”
That exploration ultimately brought her fame, but also experiences she’s still working through. She never really lived in the moment, she says. All she remembers about her debut as a member of f(x) is being exhausted by all the rehearsals and appearances.
“I wish I enjoyed the success a little bit more; enjoyed the time with the girls a little bit more,” she says. “I think it’s also because we haven’t worked in the last couple of years [as a band] that we’ve become better friends.”
The news, then, of her former bandmate Sulli’s suicide last October came as a shock. Sulli, whose real name was Choi Jin-Ri, had faced online harassment when she didn’t conform to Korean societal and industry norms. She was found dead at her home by her manager, who went to check on her after she failed to answer several phone calls.
Liu was at her L.A. home when she found out – like everyone else – on the internet.
“I’m still processing it,” she says, picking her words carefully, her voice turning pensive. “It’s … I’m just really … Because looking back at all of it, the things I went through, too, I’m trying to work on myself and hopefully keep healthy. I think there’s definitely a need for mental care, in this industry, and over all.
“I think people need to care for each other. You can get professional help, of course. But if people can just care for each other, and keep trying to get through to each other, you know?”
These and other reflections have found their way into her new songs on X, released with label Steel Wool Entertainment. Each marks a turning point in her life. Take Hands Behind My Back and Stay Calm: The former talks about people who were trying to silence her, but didn’t know what “I was doing with my hands behind my back,” she explains. The latter comes from her tendency to panic.
“I really lost myself. … I didn’t know what was right and wrong. I was still, you know, being 15,” she says. “Now I am setting out, being independent."
Suddenly, Liu’s making decisions for herself, when, for some time, other people were doing it for her. “Like a decision you make every couple of hours. What do I eat? But I couldn’t even make that decision. I kind of feel like I had to rebuild myself.”
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