After more than 10 years in the music industry, you’d think Amber Liu had seen it all.
But while in Milwaukee last month for a concert stop on her "X" tour, the Chinese-American singer — who first debuted with South Korean girl group f(x) in 2009 and has since gone solo during the group’s prolonged hiatus — had an experience like never before.
“It was my first time in Milwaukee — or even in Wisconsin — and that was a really interesting day because where we were playing was right across the street from the Ambassador Hotel,” Liu, 27, says.
The Ambassador Hotel is notoriously known as the site of where serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer killed his second victim in 1987. At the concert venue where Liu played her show across the street, The Rave/Eagles Club, there’s also a giant, empty swimming pool in the basement that’s long been rumored to be haunted.
“I’m terrified of ghosts,” Liu says. “And there was a pool, a really, really creepy abandoned pool underneath the venue that everybody wanted to take pictures at. And I’m just like, ‘I guess I’ll go if everybody goes.’ In Milwaukee, it was also the first time we had public showers. I was so scared that I had my friend stand outside my stall keeping watch for me.”
Since then, Liu says she feels like a ghost has been on the tour bus with her and her crew. “Weird things have been happening, and our computers have been freaking out,” she says.
Ghost encounter aside, Liu says the rest of the Milwaukee show went off without a hitch — and will always stick out in her mind.
“The crowd in Milwaukee was wild,” she says. “I’ve been doing nicknames for each city, and Milwaukee was like, ‘We want to be called the power bitches.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you sure?’ They’re like, ‘Yes!’ They were just super passionate. I was like, ‘Wow. They really carried the show.’ I think every crowd has really carried the show for me. I am, honestly, physically tired sometimes, but I feed off of their energy. That’s what keeps me going. And Milwaukee was the first time I felt very crazy energy, and it was a more intimate venue. I love intimate shows.”
Outside of the physical factors, Liu herself plays a huge part in giving her shows an intimate feel by telling her audience members that she wants them to feel like they’re in a safe space.
“I just think the world is scary,” she says. “There’s a lot of things going on. Everybody has their situations. And I really feel like people ingest music differently. For me, when I go to concerts, I’m actually a quiet type. I like to sit and observe, and it’s been more recent that I’ve been learning to let go and just have fun. But I think it’s because my friends that take me to these concerts let me have fun. They make me feel safe.”
“My crowds, my fans are so diverse, and it’s really awesome,” she continues. “One fan even came up to me and was like, ‘Thank you for saying that if you just want to sit and observe the show, go ahead.’ She felt less pressure and less scared to be herself there. And I think that’s what I want. If you want to be loud and fun and shouting, go ahead. If you want to be quiet, you want to clap, you want to just watch, that’s cool too. I just want people to feel like they’re not going to be judged by the way that they have fun, you know?”
While on tour, Liu says she’s noticed a certain song of hers that has really resonated with her fans: 2016’s “Borders.”
“A lot of people have been like, ‘Thank you for that song,'” she says. “What was so funny about that song, which I was reminded about during tour, was that when I originally was getting opinions about that song, people were questioning me, ‘Why do you want to release this?’ And I was like, ‘I just want to maybe help people with my music. Maybe people who like my music or come across that song will feel less alone if they’re going through something.’ Those people told me like, ‘Oh. No one’s going to care about that.'”
“I want to tell the fans that they’re physical proof that those haters were wrong, and I think putting honesty in music is what’s going to help us learn about each other and help us overcome whatever struggles that we’re going through,” she continues. “And hopefully we do it together.”
At her shows, Liu says she has met many fans who have been following her since her start with f(x).
“Because I’m going to cities that I’ve never been to, a lot of people are like, ‘You’re real. I’ve been watching you since I was 13,'” she says. “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh. That’s crazy.’ And it’s surreal for me. I’m like, ‘Do people even know me in these cities?’ I’m just super grateful and thankful because it’s been 10 years since I started, and that’s a lot of waiting time.”
While Liu says she has loved being in f(x) with her bandmates Victoria, Luna and Krystal (their fifth bandmate, Sulli, died in October), embarking on a solo music career in 2015 just happened organically.
“Being solo was never something I wanted,” she says. “Groups have their off times as well. And, instead of me sitting around waiting, I was like, ‘I want to do some music.’ It started more as a side project.”
These days, Liu says she’s still “figuring out” her sound through “trial and error.” Though her latest EP, X, was only released last month, she says she’s “always” working on new music and hopes to release a full album soon.
“I’m trying to work on an LP,” she says. “I don’t know, it might turn into an EP again or turn into a whole string of singles, but I’m always constantly writing. I’ve also been acting here and there, so I’m doing auditions. Other than the same old music and grind, it’s just more being patient with life and figuring out myself — and hopefully getting rest. My fans, I think, are the most concerned about me not sleeping.”
In addition to getting more rest, Liu says she’s now focused on “learning to let go and be more honest with myself.”
“I’m learning about myself every day, and I’m just trying to work on me as a person,” she says. “Because I think I’ve frequently ignored it a lot. And now that I have not only a supportive fan base but a lot of really supportive friends and coworkers and people around me, I’m learning to understand that being honest with yourself and your thoughts is where you should start. I think every artist’s struggle is to try to keep making art, and hopefully it comes from a good place.”
When looking back to that day she was discovered at a festival in Los Angeles’ Koreatown and asked to audition for South Korean label SM Entertainment 10 years ago, Liu jokes, “Wow, I was a stupid kid.”
“But who isn’t like that when they look back at themselves?” she adds with a laugh. “A lot of ups, a lot of downs. I’m just really always trying to stay positive and just realize that I legit am doing what I love. With all the bulls— and all the awesome stuff that comes with it, I am doing what I love. It’s about me spending time with my fans and hoping that they walk away from my show feeling like, ‘Yeah, I can get through tomorrow. I’m good now, even if it’s temporary.’ For me, I just want to share some love because I’ve gotten so much love over the years, so it’s my time to give back.”