From sadness to hope: The sober paradigm shift of Hand Drawn Maps

Hand Drawn Maps
Hand Drawn Maps is Stewart Crichton (left) and Blake Baldwin.

For years after they lost touch, Blake Baldwin would hear the stories about his childhood friend, Stewart Crichton.

The Ties That Bind UsThe two — who make up the band Hand Drawn Maps — had grown up together in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, bonded over music and family gatherings. So tight were their parents that the Baldwins and Crichtons took trips to Catalina together. They went camping together. And while the boys may have drifted apart, the parents stayed in touch, so Baldwin’s mother would pass along the stories of Crichton’s spiral into the abyss of addiction, and they were never good.

“He told me later that my mom would tell his mom, ‘Stewart’s messing up again. Stewart’s on skid row. Stewart’s homeless,’” Crichton told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “He would listen and think, ‘Jesus Christ, why can’t he just get it together?’”

As 2013 dawned, however, the bad news stopped. Baldwin didn’t know it, but Crichton hit his bottom on Dec. 24 of the previous year, and as he slowly rebuilt a life in sobriety, the maternal reports about his childhood friend changed trajectory.

“He started hearing, ‘Stewart’s actually doing good! Stewart’s in treatment. Stewart’s doing music again,’” Crichton said. “He just remembers hearing through the grapevine that I was playing music in northeast Los Angeles, and from there, we were able to reconnect and start a friendship back up.”

It’s serendipitous, then, that there’s a hazy, dream-like quality to the indie rock of Hand Drawn Maps that echoes the blissful innocence of childhood, because while the two men are no longer kids, the music they make is rooted in a shared tie to that time in their lives, made a whole again thanks to Crichton’s sobriety.

Hand Drawn Maps: Origins

Stewart Crichton (left) and Blake Baldwin are Hand Drawn Maps.

Music was there in the beginning, the thing that brought the two together. Baldwin is a couple of years older, the age of Crichton’s brother, and as far back as Crichton can remember, music has represented a portal to a higher plane of existence.

“My dad had an old record player in the garage, and I used to go out there when I was 4 or 5 years old. I remember coming up on a copy of ‘Rubber Soul’ by The Beatles, and I remember putting that on,” he said. “That used to be my thing, going out there and playing with his records, and that was the first band that I really gravitated toward and became a super fan of. Their songwriting, all of their harmonies and lyrics — just the feeling and the authenticity and the passion behind their songs made me kind of want to start writing music and make my own songs.”

He remembers how, around the age of 10, his father took him along to a Mars Music in Redondo Beach to pick up some guitar strings. His dad was a guitar player who picked around the fire on family camping trips, but while his father browsed the strings selection, young Crichton found himself over beside the bass guitars, where a dreadlocked stranger was playing.

“I remember standing by the amp and letting the vibrations overtake me, and I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to be a bass player,’” he said. “That didn’t work out forever, because my dad leaned toward guitar and I eventually did too, but even when I write music today, I think about the music and the bass lines.”

In a way, his foray into music is reminiscent of his recovery journey, especially the 12 Step path that’s worked for Crichton and so many others. Step Three discusses the invaluable role of coming to believe in a higher power, a spiritual component of the recovery process that’s prevalent in most self-help programs, and for Crichton, his “coming to believe” in the power of music followed a similar trajectory. And, in a way, so did his coming to believe in the idea that drugs were a relief from life’s emotional slings and arrows.

“I was kind of an unusual kid, so I was bullied. When I look back, I was a rocker — I loved The Beatles and old ’60s music,” he said. “A lot of kids my age didn’t like that, and they took it out on me and made me feel different. But I remember being in the sixth or seventh grade and was with a group of friends, and one of them had a bong and some weed. Once I took a hit off that bong, I got really high — like, out-of-my-mind high, almost like a psychedelic experience for me.

“When I was coming down, I felt like I had arrived. I honestly feel like when I took that first hit of weed, I was off and running. I had found something I wanted to do forever, for the rest of my life. It finally felt like after all those years of not being cool, of being weird and different, that I had found something, and a group of people and a lifestyle, that I could relate to and just be myself. It felt like relief — a relief from the pain.”

Off the map: Stewart hits bottom

Hand Drawn MapsThroughout high school, he flirted with the knife’s edge, always on the functional side of disaster, but by the time he was in his senior year, he had reached the last house on the block as far as drugs are concerned.

“It kind of got bad a couple of times, but I was always able to pull myself out of it,” Crichton said. “I got arrested a couple of times for possession of weed, or a ticket here and there, but when I was around 15 or 16, I got into opiate medication like Oxycontin. By the time I was 17, it had progressed to black tar heroin, and I was really hooked. The secret was out in my family, because you just can’t hide something like that for long.”

Music, however, was always his security blanket, the thing he could fall back on even during dark times. If he was passionate about anything, it was playing, and when he received an opportunity to join a touring performing arts group, his parents acquiesced on the condition that he go to treatment for 30 days. He did, but it didn’t take, and for the next several years, he struggled with a drug habit while trying to keep music first.

“By the time a few years had gone by, I kind of lost everything,” he said. “Everything progressed, as it does in addiction, and I found myself kicked out of this performing arts group, strung out on heroin. I had gotten kicked out of this sober living home because I couldn’t stop using, and my parents had told me not to come back home.”

For the next six months, he circled the metaphorical drain, moving to downtown Los Angeles where a ready supply of drugs could be found for a guy who knew how to hustle and score. His life literally became one of the mantras of getting, using and finding ways and means to get more, and he remembers vividly returning to South Bay to visit a friend, not having showered in weeks, and the look of disgust and pity with which he was greeted.

It all came to a head on Christmas Eve 2012, when a chance encounter with a stranger led to his bottom.

“This hippie dude told me he was going to bless me, and he took a sugar cube out of his freezer and put it in my mouth, literally dosing me with acid,” Crichton said. “Here I was, withdrawing from heroin, walking down the beach, crying like a mental patient over what my life had become. Eventually I found myself alone in this CVS, coming down off of acid and withdrawing, and I just had this epiphany.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t go on living this way.’ All of my music equipment was in pawn shops, so this thing I loved so much had been taken away. I had traded it for a substance, and I was ashamed of what my life had become. So I begged someone for 35 cents, and I made one call to my mom. I said something along the lines of, ‘I think I’m done now, and I need to go to treatment.’”

Hand Drawn Maps: Reunited through rock 'n' roll

Blake Baldwin (left) and Stewart Crichton.

His father picked him up and brought him home, giving him an inflatable mattress to sleep on in the garage — “As an addict, we steal shit, and they knew my game,” Crichton added — and he steeled himself to make it through the holiday. On Christmas Day, however, his mother showed up, scooped him up and gave him an ultimatum: “You’re going to treatment now.”

“I just said OK, because at that point, I had that willingness to change,” he said.

At a drug and alcohol treatment facility in Pasadena, he was met with tough love, none more so than what he gave himself. Through his previous treatment stint, he had been exposed to the 12 Steps and to recovery meetings, but they had always seemed too difficult. Too painful. Too much of a sea change to undertake. This time around, however, he only knew one thing: He had nothing else to lose.

“I remember just talking to myself and saying, ‘I need to give this thing a chance, I need to give these Steps a chance,’” he said. “They sounded kind of hard, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want to do them, but maybe I should give them a chance and see what’s up.’”

He took other suggestions as well, finding a sponsor — a recovery mentor — who helped guide him through the process of understanding that sobriety doesn’t equal abstinence, and that to truly recover, change has to encompass so much more than simply not using drugs. It was, he said, a “mental paradigm shift” in which an intellectual understanding of recovery principles and concepts are internalized and become new patterns of living.

And things started to get better. After treatment, he enrolled in an outpatient program. He stayed in a sober living facility. His mother gave him his guitar back, trusting that he had changed enough that it wouldn’t wind up in a pawn shop. He began playing again, even writing some songs, doing so for the guys with which he was living.

“I had always loved to write songs, but I never did it with serious vigor until I got clean,” he said. “I started writing songs again, and everyone seemed to love them. They would come chill out on the porch and listen to me play my original songs. Eventually a friend of mine named George, this old Hollywood dude/music lover/manager guy, heard me playing once and kind of liked what I was doing.

“He was like, ‘I should get you booked on some shows,’ and that’s how I started playing acoustic shows, and that’s how I started playing acoustic shows around the area. And when I did that, I realized I wanted to get back into this.”

Around that time was when he reconnected with Baldwin, who had gone on to study music at CalArts. Crichton was living in Highland Park, and through his mother found out Baldwin was moving to the same area. By that point, Crichton was performing solo under the Hand Drawn Maps moniker, but when he and Baldwin realized their tastes and preferences were as kismet as they had been as kids, they joined forces.

“I was trying to do this singer-songwriter type of music that was kind of Bob Dylan-esque, but my dream was always to be in a band,” Crichton said. “Blake was on his own path, doing his own thing, but when we decided to go at it and to try making music together, our songwriting chemistry was on.”

The future's so bright ...

Hand Drawn MapsThe duo’s debut EP is due later this year, and to date they’ve released two singles: “Catch a Wave,” a chiming, sunny-sounding slice of indie-pop that rides the crest of a driving rhythm that Crichton credits to Baldwin’s talent.

“That lead guitar part, that bass line, were all written by Blake, and I think it gives that song its driving force,” he said. “Together, the lyrics are about my use of drugs and stuff — ‘you wouldn’t mind if I leave, the next time we meet, pull up my sleeve and see if I’m ready’ — and it gives it a certain vibe that’s pretty interesting. Where I’m not tough, Blake is extremely tough, and it ends up being a really good partnership, because we compliment each other in ways that we don’t necessarily see, but it brings life to the music and gives it a certain vibe that’s pretty interesting.”

The band’s most recent single, “Everybody Knows,” bounces on a more frenetic beat, anchoring the song in a sweet desperation that rides a pocket between darkness and light — always tipping more toward the latter, thanks to Crichton’s sobriety.

“When I was making music when I was strung out and doing drugs, there was an overwhelming sadness in the lyrics,” he said. “Now that I’ve been sober for a while, I’m more creative. I’m more thoughtful with my overall chord progression, my lyrics, everything. That overwhelming sadness in the heart of my music from when I was using has been overshadowed by the overwhelming amount of hope and positivity behind my message nowadays.

“Any drugs can be notoriously damaging to your creativity. You may think they’re improving it, but in the long run, they’re not. Now that I have a sober, clear mind, I feel like my music has undergone this paradigm shift, from overwhelming sadness to a sad hope.”

And he, added, he’s more creative than he’s ever been. The guys have released an accompanying video with each of the two singles, and the EP will follow soon, giving the world a fuller taste of the Hand Drawn Maps sound — kaleidoscopic indie rock with flourishes of beach music and dance pop, all built on a bedrock of lifelong friendship and salvaged by Crichton’s sober resurrection.

“We want to record more, to play more, to spread the word of our music and get in front of people, and hopefully the people who hear it will be able to relate to the lyrics and the story and understand how I struggled with addiction and depression,” he said. “And, if they’re going through the same stuff, maybe they can see that there’s a way out.”