The Asian diaspora in Australia has always possessed a steady, thrumming desire to be represented and celebrated amid the Australian music scene. Despite growing global dominance, Asian-led music locally has remained overlooked. Sonica Music Festival comes at this time – the first festival, featuring entirely Asian artists largely inspired by K-pop and broader East Asian genres, here in Melbourne. The line-up boasts headlining K-pop acts Zico and Henry Lau, Singapore-based Gentle Bones, Hong Kong singer Gareth.T, and solo pop artist Amber Liu.
Amber Liu is a memorable name for many of us in the Asian diaspora who grew up throughout the 2000s. Initially part of K-pop group f(x), Amber’s solo career has propelled her across several international stages and shows. Her YouTube presence throughout the 2000s sparked collaborations with other huge names within diaspora internet culture and was inarguably monumental in priming global audiences for the next Hallyu wave. The nostalgia clearly runs deep, but Amber’s got a lot more exciting work in her future than just in the past.
Farrago sat down with Amber before her Sonica performance and discussed her feelings towards the line-up, her first time in Australia and her future work.
Bringing a tourist’s curiosity, “I’m already anticipating food places and the adventure after the show,” she laughs. When asked if there was anything she was worried about or anticipating, “I’m more nervous about when I get there, and people are like… ‘who’s that’?
“I kind of hid for the past year and took some more time for myself to really focus on myself mentally and physically.” Fans will be relieved to know that the rest was definitely effective, and Amber is in an exciting new place in her career, with an empowering message to embrace the sadness and feel proud of your hardships. “I feel the rebirth of Amber,” she jokes. “I feel different to before.”
We’re excited to see what you have planned! First, what drew you to Sonica? What made you want to be a part of the festival?
I love festivals. I feel like with festivals, there's a certain vibe. People go to festivals to explore new music, and I thought of that as a reintroduction, to like, ‘I’m Amber’. There are lots of fans in Australia who’ve known me since my K-pop days and seen me grow up on YouTube… but the music that happening now is also very different, so I’m trying to give them a little bit of what they want but also show them this is what I’m up to now.
What will you be performing at Sonica? Was there any particular reasoning behind the setlist and what can we expect from you for Sonica – any collaborative stages?
My team and I are tailoring our set to really vibe with the crowd. That’s always what we’ve wanted; to just vibe with the crowd and make sure they have some room to dance, too– don’t just look at me dancing! Let's dance together too. I’ll act a fool on stage, too! I’m just excited to meet them and joke around with them.
This one is just me and my band. My choreographer and I–she’s been training me for three years, and we’ve only danced once together for a video–she’s joining me on stage, and my music director Sam… I’ve been working with him for the past year on my stage performances and the music itself. When it comes to an Amber performance, you know the band is gonna be sick and the dancers are gonna be sick, so just, hype them up, ‘cause they deserve the credit.
Is there a song you’re most excited to perform?
Surprisingly, when I first released the song ‘Make It Better’ from my Y album, it was one of those heartfelt songs where I was just singing about my feelings… you know… sad llama mode… but on stage, it's kind of become one of those songs that just creeps up on you, like, wait... I kind of want to hear that again. It's become one of those little staples of my set. It's really fun to perform because the band takes it to a different level.
That sounds so exciting! Sidney Myer Music Bowl is definitely designed for sound and live band performances.
So, how do you approach live performances? Are there any rituals you follow before you go up on stage?
Usually, 30 mins to an hour before I’ll do warmups and all that pizzazz, but the last 15-20 minutes is just complete silence for me–I go through this whole ‘mental imposter syndrome’. It’s a lot of mentally going through the cycles of what could go wrong, and all my performance anxiety comes out… and then I exhaust all that performance anxiety, and I'm like, ‘Okay! Let's go out on stage now’.
My issue is that I always think so much ahead… what's different now is that my process when I get to that point is to bring it to the ‘right now’… pep-talk myself a little bit. I need to be kinder to myself.
That’s really relatable – tethering yourself back to the moment.
Yeah, it’s been a bunch of that. And we typically get together with the band in a circle… hope that everybody stays safe and wish everybody well. It's not just me, it's my band. They’re extremely important to every step of the process. That’s how we roll. We’re a big family, and we stay together.
I’m sure with a relationship like that, the chemistry really shows itself on stage.
We’re a big family, and we stay together.
You dropped a new single on Friday, ‘No More Sad Songs’. What’s driving your upcoming work?
Last year I really took a step back from everything and re-examined what happiness means to me, what ‘loving myself’ means to me, you know… every quote in the book. What does that mean? What do these things mean? In life, it’s inevitable to feel sad, to go through hardship and stumble. It goes, “Not gonna give up, won't let you give up”… I want to shout this to everyone who’s about to cross the finish line, and they don’t even know it. And I wanted to keep telling it to myself as well.
There were definitely some points last year where I kept losing my head… where I was like, I don’t even know if I was to do this anymore, what’s the point… and I felt a lot of hopelessness. Life just genuinely sucks a lot sometimes. What keeps me going is sometimes my friends just being like, ‘get up, get your ass up’, and I just need that push.
I wanted to take that feeling of ‘even if you don’t believe in yourself right now, someone out there does’. I just wanted this song to empower people. It's not about ‘don’t be sad’, it's, “be proud of that! Be proud of those tears and your hardships, ‘cause you got through that!”. That’s what happens with every single project, and I’ve done it so many times on the road.
I’m tired of hearing, “don’t be sad” – it's okay to be sad and feel that sadness. There's beauty to sadness. When I was so depressed and would get into spirals of that, I realised things about myself, and how even if I’m going crazy in my head, the birds still eat. Hope is out there, hope is definitely out there. Sometimes you’ve just got to let it come to you.
What do you think people can expect from your upcoming releases, lyric and production-wise?
I feel a lot more relaxed; I feel that my music has taken a big step. My executive producer really reshaped my thoughts about music and what it can become. The possibilities, whilst always infinite–I'm more familiar with what that is. Versus like… ‘I think it can be anything’ and just leave it at that. I'm more familiar with the ins and outs.
Lyrically… I’m at least a couple of steps closer to finding the words to describe what I feel. It's always hard–how do you describe your feelings to somebody? Other than ‘sad’ or ‘mad’ or ‘happy’. In those ways, I feel like I'm more real to myself.
Building on that, where are you at with your music now and the story of ‘Amber’? In 2018 you said the focus of your music was personal evolution – are we still in the middle of this, or has that story reached its close?
That sounds like a very 2018-me thing to say. My art will always be the evolution of whomever I am at that time. I'm content with that. Every day I’m going to feel like what I wrote yesterday sounds like trash, but I’m going to keep pushing myself.
I know I won't give up on writing the record I want to write. I definitely told myself [in the past] that I would quit dancing–then I was like, ‘nah!’, I’m good. In 2018 I thought I was being true to who I was then, but every year, in every life phase I’m going through at the time… the layer on top of that is, am I genuinely okay with myself–the good and the bad.
What is in your future we can look forward to? Is there anything you can tease us with?
The next couple of releases is ‘classic Amber’ in the sense that there will be a variety of things. Even if you don’t like one song, they’re all different vibes, and I’m really excited about some of the features on upcoming songs. It was surreal for me to be like, “oh, we have a song together”… again (that’s the tease!).
I hope to be touring everywhere–Antarctica, if there are people there. That would be great.
For an artist with over a decade of documented growth, failures and successes under the spotlight of the public eye, attempting to reintroduce yourself to an audience that already carries preconceived notions based on who you were is certainly intimidating. But after some much-needed time to heal, it’s evident that Amber is not only energised but is also more connected than ever to her goals and purpose as an artist. “I love playing shows and singing with people.. That’s all I really want to do – and tell cool stories through music.” All of that shone through during her set at Sonica Music Festival.
“Now, 2023-Amber is saying living in the moment and being content with in the moment.”