When Samantha Hale asked Imogen Heap how she felt about fans who travel hundreds, sometimes even thousands of miles to see her perform, Imogen laughed and responded by saying, “Well, I think [they’re] slightly insane; but again, I think that’s important. If you have a passion in life, you will be seen as slightly insane. I think we (meaning the insane ones) are normal, and people who are in boxes– society likes to make us think that that’s normal. I believe the more things that you do to follow your heart and your passion, the less messed up you’ll be.”
Heap’s candor and honesty about the intersection between convention and a fervent, perhaps even insatiable, zeal for live music encapsulates much of what Hale attempts to unravel in her recent documentary, Map The Music. It’s an impressive look at what lies beneath the surface of fandom, to discover those whose enthusiasm becomes devotion and forges communities in which music is both the common focus and the language used. Spaces in which difference is blurred by the experience of sharing in the light of live music, and where voice is given to the outsider as they’re transformed into the accepted. Certainly it’s this type of compulsion that draws considerable criticism from the casual observer, but Hale’s dedication to the emotional landscape of these people and the artists who inspire them constructs a vocabulary for the film that inverts tradition and instead establishes these “super-fans” as the truly “normal.”
What results from such a perspective is a document of the ways in which music helps people cope with their lives and decipher the intricacies of human relationships. Following the sudden death of her father in April 2006, Hale set forth with a friend to follow Imogen Heap’s spring tour. What began as a means of escape and healing soon became a journey that would take Hale through the next four years as she delved deeper into the communities of super-fans, highlighting especially those following Heap, Zoë Keating, Rachael Yamagata, Charlotte Martin, Jim Bianco, Kate Havnevik, Joshua Radin and Cary Brothers. Bolstered by the therapeutic response from Imogen’s spring tour, she emptied her savings account, bought a camera and prepared for Imogen’s fall tour, ready to tackle the question of why are there so many people like her out on the road for these shows?
FINDING “HOME” IN ART
Speaking outside during a blustery and bitterly cold winter day, Hale poses the question to a fellow concert-goer, who responds simply, “It’s home. When I go to a show and I’m in that whole atmosphere, in with the people, that’s me. That’s home.” It may seem unremarkable at first, but Hale contextualizes this discussion in bridging communities through a shared sense of family. By attending a performance together, fans enter into a communion with themselves and the artists on stage. Kate Havnevik asserts, “It’s full circle: you give and they [the fans] give back, and it keeps going like that. I really think you need each other to make that magic.” While each person, performer included, brings a certain story to each show, there then arises a shared experience that then exists as a collective expanse, further developing personal connection. And in moments like these, a concert becomes much more than group therapy, a time to let down your hair or even mere entertainment; rather, when an audience forms around the central force of an artist utterly tapped into their creative energy, it becomes for many a transformative occasion.
The first artist Hale interviewed for Map The Music was avant-garde cellist Zoë Keating, who at the time was the opening act for Imogen Heap’s 2006 fall/winter tour. In her usual candidness, Keating discusses her difficulty with the process of letting go of her music. “It makes me feel uncomfortable, because somebody has had an experience that I didn’t have… The music has some particular meaning to me, because I wrote it at a certain time, and once you put it out there as a performance, it gets one step removed. And then someone else has another experience, and it keeps going. That’s a really beautiful thing… But I always want to be able to experience everything with someone else. So, if someone has an experience with my music, but I wasn’t there for it because I was performing and they were listening, there’s this tragic divide, and what makes me uncomfortable is that I don’t know what that experience was, and I’d like to be a part of it. But that then just encourages me to write more music." It’s an eloquent and fascinating take at the inherent strain between creator and consumer, exposing the dilemma often felt by an artist whose work is deeply emotional.
After releasing Map The Music in 2010, Hale found she could easily empathize with Keating’s frustration. “Once you put it out there, it is tough. Zoë said it made her feel uncomfortable and I understand that now. I didn’t before when she told me, but I had never released anything artistic like this. So, I understood, but I didn’t truly understand… You just have to let it go and know that you’re happy with it and that you were honest with it.” However, by focusing on the emotional and spiritual connections that drive the formation of super-fan circles, Hale maintains an honest and authentic voice throughout the film. The openness and vulnerability that she embraces within herself, and then highlights among fans and even the artists themselves, grants the viewer access to the many shades of history that fuels the devotees in the documentary. Hale encapsulates this sentiment when she continues by saying, “You know, we’re not alone in this. We are all unified by sound, which is insane when you think about it, but it’s so beautiful.”
MAP THE MUSIC AS ELEGY
A fairly compelling thread that runs alongside Map The Music’s main premise is that by attending live music, when framed by massive dedication as reference, there emerges a remedial effect that produces internal harmony. People who take part in dozens, even hundreds, of concerts each year are often met with unspoken incredulousness and are labeled “broken.” Many believe that in order to arrive at such a commitment, which they may even designate as zealousness, there has to either be serious psychological damage or obsession that derives from a major problem in that person’s life.
To a certain extent, perhaps they aren’t wrong. Many do enter into this level of fandom through specific trauma, such as Hale losing her father. However, what these naysayers fail to grasp is the profound spiritual connection that manifests when one follows passion. The people depicted in this film aren’t drug-addled teenagers, riding around in a van to escape reality and piss off their parents. These are loving, respectable people whose drive comes from their contact with the artists who continually inspire them and motivate them to become whole beings. Early on in her casual interviews with fans waiting before shows, Hale speaks with a young man in line, who jokingly says “I’m a junkie. I’m addicted to music, very much so.” Maybe the vocabulary available doesn’t leave room for there to be a non-negative version of “addiction,” but if there’s one great strength about Map The Music it’s the film’s tenacity in demonstrating the integrity of those involved.
Even still, it’s important to note the intensity and magnitude of sorrow that does play a role in the documentary. Obviously the main thrust for Hale was to make sense of her own grief following her father’s death, which definitely informs and impacts the narrative of the work. Close to the end, in fact, there’s a moment where the camera gets directed on Hale herself. She recounts a breakdown she had had just hours before at a show, where the actuality of her loss became vivid and haunting. “It’s certainly not fixing — I know that my Dad will never come back,” she says, “but this is my way of showing him that I’m doing something I love, because I know he’s watching and I know that he’s seeing everything that I do. And that makes me proud.” The rawness and pain is palpable, and then Hale brings in interviews with fans who claim the music of these artists is what keeps them alive. A bold statement, definitely, but one that is sincere and ingenuous.
On the continuum of emotions, despair is just as valid as joy, melancholy as vital as pleasure. However, all of these feelings propel a deeper connection with music because it’s an art form that allows one to emote and identify with its sentiments without judgment. At times, an artist’s lyrics can tap into something that feels inexpressible. Kate Havnevik recalls a sixteen year-old writing to her after the death of a close friend, and states that, “[In your song “Grace”] you [Kate] expressed my pain, and it helped me to heal. Obviously, it couldn’t help all the way, but every time I listen to it I cry and smile because I love him so much and the pain is so real, but I know I’ll be OK and get through it, and everything in that song explains every thing that I feel exactly, and it tells me what I need to do– I ask him if he will turn my grief into grace.” What Map The Music does is not dismiss music’s emotional insight but rather elevate it, as it acts as both elegy for those depicted and the pain they carry, as well as show that by forging a communal space where suffering is accepted, one can be protected and restored. In essence, everyone is “broken” in some way, but by following passion and relating to others with honesty and openness, healing can (and will) occur.
THE FUTURE OF MAP THE MUSIC
The initial pressing of Hale’s documentary was a limited edition run of three hundred copies, all of which sold out within the first month of being released. A second edition is now available through many different channels, and the film will be shown on November 24th on The Documentary Channel. It’s inspired Hale to continue the journey embarked upon with the first installment of the Map The Music series, and this fall she’ll begin filming for a sequel whose rough theme is musical “love letters.”
What is most exciting, however, about the last year for Map The Music is its spreading throughout the world to fans from across the globe. It’s been shipped to Hong Kong, Germany, Australia, France, Hungary, the United Kingdom, Canada, and many other countries, making it a truly international work. And social media networks, primarily Facebook, have provided a forum for continued discussion about experiences, stories and even coordinating upcoming travel plans. In a way, the evolution of the film beautifully reflects the main question behind the whole project: “What does music mean to you?” Hale’s admiration for the “die-hard” and fervent combined with her emotional acumen and attentiveness have created a poignant look into the culture of super-fan communities, and just like the zeal of those depicted in the film, it leaves us wanting more.
Filmed and directed by Samantha Hale
For more information, please visit www.mapthemusic.com