The convention-flipping tomboy has been a champion of diversity in K-pop for years – and now she's going it alone. She tells us why compromising was never an option
With her eye-popping style and flow, rapper/singer Amber Liu is the convention-flouting warrior queen of K-pop. As one-fifth of girl group f(x), Liu smashed the pop-idol mould and baffled mainstream Korean audiences with her androgynous cropped hair, snapback and baggy shorts. In the process, the Chinese-American star (affectionately known as ‘Llama’ to her fans) has become a poster girl for individuality and strength.
Liu’s 2009 debut with the group, “LA chA TA”, made her an instant target for both admiration and derision in South Korea. Questions were asked: why was she allowed to – or made to – resemble a male pop star? And why was she included in a group whose other members were conventionally feminine? Others applauded the move as a small but necessary victory for diversity in an environment of narrow beauty standards.
f(x) never played by the rules, either, and have cemented their position as the dark horse of Korean girl groups by sidestepping K-pop’s two mainstay aesthetic styles of ‘sexy’ or ‘cute’. In doing so, they’ve established themselves as champions of fluid, expressive creativity. This is a band with videos that can go from cartoonish to Highland kitsch and gothic, and still seem cohesive. The five-piece’s music has bounced around in similar fashion, from the sultry pop of “Hot Summer” to dance bangers like “Electric Shock” and the raucous, dark electronica of “Red Light”. Escaping easy categorisation has allowed their albums to dip freely into Motown, EDM and hip hop, with their ear-worm eclecticism attracting praise from artists such as Grimes. Even Anna Kendrick and the Funny or Die crew snuck a little slice of f(x)’s magic in for a slapstick skit.
“‘Beautiful’ is about accepting who I am: it took me a while to gain confidence to say, ‘Screw it, I just wanna be me’” – Amber Liu
Six years after she was catapulted into public consciousness, the self-confessed tomboy, sports-lover and black belt in taekwondo has gained a huge following without a single compromise of her image. Now, she’s striking out on her own. This month, the 22-year-old’s debut solo single and video “Shake That Brass” winked and nudged its way to a million YouTube views in less than 24 hours. The video is as colourful as the horn-tooting track, with pop-art sets that’d make Lichtenstein weep, rainbow-hued lyrics bursting on the screen and Liu hamming it up as camera angles pan, swoop and twist your eyeballs. Her trump card is the who’s-who of cameos: Girls’ Generation’s Hyoyeon and guest vocalist Taeyeon, GOT7’s Jackson, and Miss A’s Min and Jia.
If the breezy hip-pop of “Shake That Brass” was an expected direction given Liu’s back catalogue with f(x), then it’s the album’s title track, “Beautiful”, where she goes off-piste, in a touching acoustic song about self-acceptance. It’s a message so vital to Liu that she’s had the notes of the chorus tattooed onto her inner arm. “I wanted it as a reminder that as long as you believe you can achieve something you can do it,” she explains on the phone from Seoul. Liu may have made her name being the tough cookie, but she’s even stronger when she speaks from the heart.
Your androgynous style remains a talking point, even six years after you launched with f(x). Why do you think people are still commenting on it?
Amber Liu: It’s a big culture thing. I understand that people are going to question it. With anything new, if it’s weird or cool it will catch people’s attention. But slowly that new thing, if it catches on, it becomes a trend itself. I’m seeing a lot more tomboys in Korea on the street and I do hear less of, ‘Why don't you dress like a girl?’ Now a lot of people are accepting towards women’s different styles and characteristics. I think Janelle Monáe said, ‘I wanna make a new image for young girls’ and when I heard that I was like, ‘Thank you!’ It’s so cool. For anybody, get out of the box and create something new.
Janelle Monáe projects strength and sexiness in her trademark suits. How do you feel you embody those qualities?
Amber Liu: For me, as the world is more connected, everyone’s definition of beauty... you can’t pinpoint it any more. But when I feel confident I feel sexy, like I’m the coolest thing out there. As a performer, you have to have that.
You really bare your soul on your new track, ‘Beautiful’. You sing, ‘I can fly higher without fear, even when I’m trapped in darkness.’ How did you feel about revealing your more emotional side?
Amber Liu: It’s a very deep part of myself that I was afraid to open up to. My friends loved it and that gave me the confidence to let (my label) SM listen to it. They all liked it, which made me so happy. ‘Beautiful’ is about accepting who I am: it took me a while to gain confidence to say, ‘Screw it, I just wanna be me.’ ‘Heights’ is about (this idea of), ‘Now that I’ve accepted myself, where do I go?’ It’s a reminder if there’s ever a time I lose faith, I can get back up again. Writing those songs was a big step for me.
“I want to do heavy metal one day. I used to listen to stuff like Underoath, and I still love that kind of music” – Amber Liu
The way you dress has become your personal brand. Do you feel unique?
Amber Liu: I really do. I see that I’m very unique, but I’m not trying to be, I’m just being me. The most important gift you can give anyone is honesty and that’s what I want to do. I’m just doing what I feel. I want to have fun and be true to myself.
Since f(x)’s 2014 album, Red Light, you’ve filmed the reality show One Fine Day with (fellow pop star) Ailee and the celebrity soldier endurance show Real Men. What have you learned about yourself through these experiences?
Amber Liu: Ailee is like my older sister. Me, Ailee and Eric (Nam, the Korean-American singer) literally know everything about each other, so it’s great to have the time to do whatever and be lazy! It’s such a long time since we’ve all had serious talks about our future, and it's so nice to have those. For the past couple of years in Korea I’ve felt like, ‘Am I crazy? Am I stupid? Why can’t I understand this word?’ My parents are immigrants and I really understand what they went through – they have to use their brains 200% more because they have to understand another language and culture. So it’s really nice to know that I’m not alone and that people always have my back.
There were tears in Real Men because of the language barriers you encountered – that must have been tough?
Amber Liu: I actually didn’t watch it (on TV)! But I was really holding back a lot, going, ‘Don’t cry, don't cry.’ I don’t cry that much, and if I do it’s for a really big thing. Because of that language barrier I was really frustrated with myself, but it was more, ‘Amber, why are you stupid? Why can’t you get something that simple?’ It was a big battle with my conscience. ‘Man, you are worthless – you can’t do some simple steps, some marching?’ I felt like that.
You’re being very hard on yourself.
Amber Liu: Now I’ve thought about it, yeah, I really was. I didn’t know the other cast members very well at first so I was scared to ask them. With my members (in f(x)) I’m always like, ‘What does this mean, what does that mean?’ But I didn’t want to be a burden to the other soldier cast-mates, I didn’t want to be that person. I hate being the weakest link! I was disappointed in myself, but it’s out there and if I regret it that’s really bad. It’s a chapter of my life, Amber cried on TV and blah blah blah. (laughs)
In talking to you now, I hear ambition but an equal amount of vulnerability. How have you grown to accept this conflict?
Amber Liu: My friends tell me I think too much, I overanalyse everything. My dad’s a risk manager and he talks me through everything, and now I analyse every single possibility in doing something. But now I think more like, ‘If I screw up, I screw up.’ I’m going to screw up – and I’m going to have fun doing it. No regrets, ever.
It’s coming up to your sixth anniversary with f(x), but you’ve just launched as a solo artist. What are your plans with the band for the future?
Amber Liu: We haven’t had much time to spend with each other because of our different schedules, but a couple of weeks ago I met up with the members who were free that day and we had a great time. Victoria is currently in China shooting a drama series but she called the radio show I was on two days ago. I was so happy I screamed ‘Victoriaaaa!’ I really miss them, but we’re going to meet up soon ’cos we’ve got work to do.
You started off as a singer, moved on to rapping, and are now singing again on songs like ‘Beautiful’. Do you see yourself as a hybrid performer?
Amber Liu: It’s been a while since I sang full-out, but I want to be a chameleon now that I’m performing again (as a vocalist). I’m spontaneous – I don’t want to people to be like, ‘She’s this or that.’ I love music so much I want to do everything. I want to do heavy metal one day. I used to listen to stuff like Underoath, and I still love that kind of music.
If you could trade places with anyone in K-pop for 24 hours, who would it be?
Amber Liu: I hear that I look like him, so I want to be in (SHINee member) Jonghyun’s shoes for a bit. He’s very artistic, I’d love to sing like him and I could be in SHINee. And I get abs! Why can’t I get abs?!
Beautiful is out now