“I don’t care how people label me anymore”

It’s the morning after Amber Liu’s first headline show in London – an infectiously joyous moment – and she’s ready to get deep. “In the past two years, I did a lot of therapy,” she tells NME, sitting on a sofa in a hotel room a stone’s throw from last night’s venue. “I feel like I’ve also very much changed as a person.”

You can hear some of that change in Liu’s recent releases. Although there’s always been an element of self-reflection woven into her songs, her latest material has amplified that feeling. On ‘hatemyself’, released in November 2023, the f(x) member got vulnerable about her journey with self-acceptance and learning to do the opposite of the title. “Is this all I can be?/But I’ll try with patience/Though it seems useless,” she sings, softly determined to feel better about herself.

‘No More Sad Songs’ – a bright, buoyant slice of comfort – offers reassurance and positivity, both in efforts to cheer someone up (“Pour the champagne, throw all your worries away”) and allowing them to feel their feelings (“Don’t need to stop your tears, you know it’s alright”).

“I used to not know what to talk about in my therapy sessions,” she explains. “So we’d start off talking about my day, and then my therapist would guide me through things. Now, I’m like, ‘I feel this, and this is what I want to do’ – it’s a lot more intuitive.” Getting comfortable with talking about her emotions has impacted both her day-to-day life and her songwriting in big ways: “I’m more grounded now, and I’m learning the vocabulary of how I’m feeling.”

That’s evident throughout NME’s conversation with Liu. As she discusses how she’s learning to understand herself better, gaining new levels of connection with her family and heritage, and recalibrating on her journey as an artist, she unintentionally shares numerous life lessons specific to her experience but applicable to us all.

Allowing yourself to feel “negative emotions” can help you through the rough patches

“I think definitely for me – and my friend group, or family – I’ve felt like if I want to cry, it’s something to be embarrassed about,” Liu says. Because of those feelings, it’s been hard for the Taiwanese-American musician to let the tears fall when she needs to, preferring to “push those negative emotions” down and suppress them. Even though she doesn’t cry often now, she’s no longer afraid to. “It’s a very simple symbol of feeling down, and I want to tell myself it’s okay to cry and be proud of those tears because you were holding in so much.”

Although her tour is titled ‘No More Sad Songs’, when she’s performing more downhearted tracks in her set, she also feels pride. “I’m singing a really sad song, but in my head, I’m like, ‘Good job, Amber! You knew how you felt!’” She laughs. “That was always my biggest problem growing up – other than ‘positive’ emotions, I didn’t want to process any ‘negative’ emotions, other than ‘I’m sad’.”

Recently, though, she’s found healing in facing up to those less sunny feelings: “Learning to really be comfortable with feeling those ‘negative’ emotions has definitely helped me understand not only how to cope and overcome those slumps, but to be okay with talking about it more and more.”

amber liu
Amber Liu. Credit: Christian Haahs

How you identify within yourself is more important than the labels other people put on you

Liu has long been known as an androgynous figure in music, as a member of her K-pop girl group f(x) and in her solo journey. In her music video for her latest single ‘Dusk Till Dawn’, though, she explored a more feminine side of her identity. Just like her emotions, it was something she needed to get comfortable with. “The femininity was obviously always in me,” she reasons. “But I was like, ‘What if I just really embraced it and was not afraid to say that this is part of me?’”

The masculine aspect of Liu did, she acknowledges, begin with her but was intensified by the K-pop industry and those who shaped her public-facing image. At that time, she was told that her fans wanted her to be more masculine. “I naturally just developed this feeling that being feminine wasn’t an option for me,” she admits. As she’s gone on this journey of self-discovery and understanding, she’s become more sure and confident in who she is, and now won’t allow anyone to tell her who that is.

“Now I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m a girl, back the fuck up!’” she grins playfully. “Sometimes people say, ‘That’s really girly for you,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m a girl…’ But I don’t care anymore what people label me as – how I label myself and identify within who I am is more important, and if someone’s like, ‘How do you feel?’, I’ll share my two cents.”

Above all else, what matters most is whether you’re happy

Growing up, Liu’s relationship with her mother was good but disconnected. Her mum struggled with English, while Liu had her own battles with Mandarin. “The only way my mum was able to show love was just to help us do things through actions, like taking me and my sister to school or helping us clean up,” she explains. Over the last couple of years, the musician has spent more time in China and drilled down on learning her mum’s native tongue, allowing them to strengthen their connection.

Now that the pair can have deeper conversations, Liu’s mindset and perspective have been guided more by her mother. “She’s always just wanted me to be happy,” she says, alluding to a question she’s always faced with in their chats. “She’s always really given me that sense of ‘Am I doing things for the right reason?’ Now that I’m on Chinese television, she’s like, ‘I saw those videos, and I’m so proud of you, but are you happy?’”

Although she says her parents have never pressured her to chase success, money or fame, she has never wanted to feel like their sacrifices are going to waste. At one point, Liu asked her mum what she calls “one of the hardest questions”: if she quit music and did something else, would she love her any less? “I was genuinely curious, and she was like, ‘Amber, have you just felt like you’re doing all this for me and your dad?’ She was like, ‘I hope you don’t feel that way – all I want for you is to find your passions and live a fulfilled life.’”

That question of happiness has now become something of a habit, with the 31-year-old asking herself it throughout the day. “When I leave this earth, the one question I’ll want to ask myself is, ‘Did I live a fulfilled life?’ I’m learning to not only have fun while working but also have fun just living life.”

amber liu
Amber Liu. Credit: Christian Haahs

Never lose sight of your purpose

Asking her mum how she’d feel if Liu quit music wasn’t entirely hypothetical. There was a point where the artist was questioning her future in the industry and whether she would start something new instead. Working out the answer to that conundrum required her to dig deep and ask herself who she wanted to be – as a person, a daughter, a sister and an artist – and step back and really reflect on who she is.

“In the past, I wanted to be a big star and had all these high expectations of myself,” she says, but now she’s found a new motivation. “Now I think, ‘If nine-year-old Amber saw 31-year-old Amber, how would she feel?’ When I was nine, I accepted that I love pants and was really into sports. I was involved in a lot of school activities and there weren’t a lot of girls involved, so I was mostly hanging with my guy friends. But nine-year-old Amber also felt very much alone – it felt right to be in those places, but at the same time, it felt very lonely.”

There have been times when it’s been hard for Liu to remember her purpose. When figuring out her future, she had to reconnect with that and entangle two things – if she still loved music (“Never a question”) and the industry. “One option I thought of was recording songs just for myself and never releasing them.” Instead, she decided to continue on her path because of her nine-year-old self. Liu holds up her hand in front of her face as if she’s holding up a mirror. “I want to do this for you,” she says, firmly but gently and full of love.

Amber Liu’s latest single ‘Dusk Till Dawn’ is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music and more.


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