Reading Tarot with Varsity

By Amy Garlesky

Photography by Sam Ahern

Right before the holidays, Chicago’s Varsity was touring the Eastern US and passing through Washington, DC. Although unannounced, the group was secretly sitting on their latest album Fine Forever released this past spring via Run for Cover. As we gathered around a small bar table to read lead singer Stef Smith’s tarot, we spoke about the group’s dynamics, their experiences in the industry, and the foundations they built to lead up to their newest record.

As a Band: Past, Present & Future

Slumber: So we’re gonna look at Varsity in general, and we’re gonna do your past releases, what you’re currently working on, and then what’s coming next.

Stef Smith: Okay.

Slumber: Okay, really nice.

Stef: It’s okay if it’s bad too, that’d be interesting. My boyfriend got his tarot cards read and they were really bad. Like every single [card] was really, really bad. It was for his last year, I think.

Slumber: Oh no! I feel there’s good in every card so I feel like there should never be too much negative energy—and this is nice.


Past: The Lovers

The lovers represent harmony, especially in relationships. We have these two people pictured and there’s an equal exchange, an equal give and take. So if we’re looking at Varsity in the past, I see a lot of harmony but I also see the lovers as very much about choice, as well, so I see it also about making choices as a band that have led you on a path to where you are now, but done with a lot of inner harmony in your relationships.

You also have the angel [on the card] holding a sword, and swords always represent using intellect or mental energy. Additionally, there’s also this feeling of having to make these higher choices and having to make choices as to your relationship as a group. But because this is a really nice card when it comes to relationships, it seems like there’s a lot of teamwork.


Present: Three of Cups

The lovers card goes really well into this next card because the three of cups is a card about being together, celebrating together—strong collaboration. Unlike the past, this is a lot more of an enjoyment period. And that just goes with the glasses of wine, and grapes and the dancing. It’s really nice.


Future: Temperance

Temperance is all about give and take, it’s all about moderation. It’s like back to this previous harmony but in a much more mature way. So the future that I see is all good, but just even more balancing out of where you all are now – from this more joyous feeling right now to this, like, very nice, smooth, moderate balanced sort of space. So I don’t know how that resonates.

Stef: Okay, yeah it resonates a lot. Because I think this first card, the lovers cards, like we all got along but we were still figuring out how to work together, you know… I really see this as like Parallel Person when we made our last album… we wanted to do everything technically correct and made a lot of decisions based on what’s technically the right thing to do, sort of like overthinking things to a weird point.

[We were] still getting along but it took a lot of the fun and joy out of making a record. So right now, we just finished making a new record and I feel like we were way more joyful [making it]. We wanted to have more fun, we wanted to not second guess ourselves so we had like a ton of fun making it. I love this visual of frolicking around with goblets of wine. I have said the word joy when I describe the new album [and] I mean what we’re still working on it, but like it was really joyful to me… and writing it was really fun and like we weren’t stressing about our relationships while we were making this album, we were all getting along.

“When we made our last album... we wanted to do everything technically correct and made a lot of decisions based on what's technically the right thing to do.”

We would go to Bloomington, Indiana and record and have this nice kind of retreat away from Chicago. And just like, really take time to have fun with it and try new things and experiment. So I love [the Three of Cups].

And then temperance. I mean, I think we’re always striving for balance, like, it’s so hard because we all have jobs, I’m in school. You know, we have partners. It’s not a struggle, but it’s a factor, I guess. Yeah. It’s nice to see like maybe in the future, this sort of balance.

Stef Herself: Past, Present & Future

Slumber: In your past and your present, you have big energy here. So the way that tarot is laid out, there are minor cards such as [the numbers] in a regular deck of cards, which are like the two of wands, three of cups, whatever.

And then there’s the major cards that act more like court cards in a deck, like queen, king, whatever and they’re the most powerful energy in the tarot deck. And so, I see a lot of energy here, and I see it very much leading to some new things.


Past: Death

Death is all about transformation. Typically it’s associated with Scorpio, I don’t know what your astrology sign is…

Stef: Gemini.

Slumber: Okay, so death is the Scorpio card. Like snakes, scorpions shed their skin, and [in doing so] they start a new phase in their life cycle. So same thing with the death card, where this is very much saying that you went through a pretty large transformation in your past—that could be something material in terms of like career, jobs, or it could be personal growth. But this definitely shows that there were some transforming experiences [in your past]. And right now you’re coming out of that different than you were before.


Present: The Magician

In the past, you had these transformations, and in the present, you have the magician, which is the first card of the tarot deck. And, it’s all about manifestation.

So there are four suits to a tarot deck, there’s the cup, the sword, the pentacle, and the wand. It’s typically like emotions, water, intellect, air, earth, energy, materiality, and fire energy and like creative ideas and inspiration. As you can see in the magician, he has power over all four.

It then shows us really nice energy; after coming out of some of these transformative experiences, you’re very much in the power to do what you want to do. Like this could be surrounding like music or your career—I’m not quite sure. However, this is very much in a time where whatever you want to manifest for yourself, the universe is saying that you are in that position where you have that power to manifest it.


Future: Page of Pentacles and Two of Wands

And what I find really interesting is the future which doesn’t have this huge transformative energy to it, instead it has a new energy to it.

When we’re looking at court cards, which are Page Knight, Queen, and King, the pages are the youngest character. So the page of pentacles shows a starting to come into your own, in terms of materiality. You said you were in school, so I can see it relating to that in terms of like, it’s a very patient card.

The King of Pentacles is a person who is like, very much secure in all the material things—job, money, anything having to do with that sort of material sense of security. Very confident. The page of pentacles is three steps away. It’s very much a new sense of coming into that [King’s] confidence… you’re going to grow into that king character but you’re at the beginning of that process.

And then the two of wands is another card that I would say that is about balance, again. Wands are about inspiration and about creativity, so I see it as like starting to kind of figure out balance in that aspect of your life.

So, in terms of starting to work, you know – further on creative projects or pursuits or passions – you also have help along the way. As the [two people pictured] are helping each other.

So when we take it all back, it’s this period of a lot of transformation, a lot of growing into who you are now—who has this ability to manifest what you want to do next. And although there’s a newer energy in the future, it’s ultimately going to be the result of taking this path of manifesting the things that you want. And also doing so with support along the way.

Stef: I feel like this could be any number of things. Like when I think of [how] my career [has changed] a million times. And even starting music, like I didn’t study music, in college, I’ve always played music but I really abandoned it in college, like for four years I didn’t play. Only afterward did I really start playing again. So I feel like that was a big shift in my life.

And then more recently, going back to school was another huge shift—like what does it mean for me, what does it mean for music and my band. And I think those [were] the big transformations in the past. And, I do see transformation like death. So many things have to die off for you to start a [new] cycle.

The magician is a really hopeful card because so many things are up in the air right now. Just in terms of like, I’m in school, I’m starting a new career but I’m also starting a new record and starting to plan a tour for that. So like, it’s nice to feel like this is a powerful card, as in, you know the energy that you direct at the things you want, will allow things to come.

Slumber: Yes exactly, it’s basically saying right now you’re in a place where whatever you want to do, you can manifest it… and see it through.

Stef: Yeah… I feel like this is something I’m going to think about and come back to when it doesn’t feel this way. Like I don’t know, a lot of times it doesn’t feel like I have the power to make things happen, especially when things happen just on such a long timeline. But it does really feel like there’s like a nice course starting, thinking ahead to when we release our next album—or even just on this tour right now. Like this has been really nice. I mean, we haven’t played a show yet, but it feels like we made this happen in a way that we’re all happy with, which is hard with five people—to make everybody like feel like they’re getting what they want out of being performers.

And then, I guess in terms of [The Page of Pentacles] I see like [a start,] like hopefully when I graduate I’ll have a new career.

Slumber: Yeah, it’s kind of like you’re setting the course and this is just the start.

Stef: Yeah, you can’t just like jump ahead ten steps… this seems like more collaboration which is really nice. I do my best work collaborating. Sometimes that’s hard, but also I really like that these people [on the Two of Wands card] are helping each other out.

Slumber: Yeah, this is very much people working together. Then your new endeavors, there’s a lot of support there.

Stef: Yeah, I like that a lot. I think sometimes a lot of it’s good and bad. I need a lot of affirmation and support, especially when I’m doing something that’s a little bit scary like going to grad school or even just touring—like I need my people there. But yeah, kinda like back to the other spread like when everybody is happy and enjoying themselves or at least just feels like they have a say in what’s going on. Like I feel like we’re supporting each other…  hopefully that continues in the future.

Future Advice

Slumber: So I was hoping we could do one more. I have a spread that goes what worked well, like, what didn’t, and what to learn.

Stef: Yeah I like that, let’s do that. That’s really good. We need advice that comes for the higher place.

What Worked Well: Ten of Pentacles

Slumber: So as I kind of talked about before, Pentacles are very much about earthly things, material things. And it seems like that has worked well, as you’ve all had a lot of abundance in what you’re doing. You’ve been able to produce things that have really flourished. You’ve been able to compile this sense of abundance as a group, and in your music, and come up with some very valuable, and good things.

I also like it because you’ve been able to do it all by yourselves – because on the card you have these two authority figures walking away from the child and dog admiring the chest of gold.

Stef: I didn’t even see those, yeah.

Slumber: So it’s kind of like creating this abundance… and without having to rely on any larger powers. It’s been very self-creative.

Stef: I love it.

What Didn’t Work Well: Nine of Swords

Slumber: Okay, so this looks scarier than it is. The person is waking up, he’s in his bed holding a sword, trying to fight something in the dark. And this is all about illusion. This is all about fearing things that aren’t as scary as they appear. The card shows the person waking up and thinking someone’s in the dark going to get them. But really, there’s nothing super dangerous there.

So for me, when I’m reading what maybe hasn’t gone so well, it’s about reacting to things or doing things out of a certain motivation that was ultimately unnecessary. This is saying that things maybe weren’t as urgent or as serious as they may have seemed. There may have seemed to be a creature lurking in the dark but it actually wasn’t as scary as it looked.

What’s to be Learned: Knight and King of Swords

Slumber: Again, swords are a lot about decisions and mental energy – that’s why I think it’s really interesting to see that now we have three swords.

The Knight of Swords is about rushing into decisions, basically. Knight of Swords is the type of person who’s gonna like storm a castle. I have one deck where he’s storming a building on fire but isn’t being wary of the fact that it’s on fire. Which like, yes, there’s a sense of bravery and courage to doing that, but he’s doing it without really taking any time or inner reflection.

However, the King of Swords is like the King of Pentacles who has domain over material things, but instead, rules over mental or intellectual things. This is very much the character that is very confident and cool about their decisions and how they use their energy. And there’s a very… I mean, [both the Knight and King] have very similar colors and almost feel like they have the same sort of scene: same trees, same clouds, the same landscape. Where the [Knight], is storming the building without any sort reflection, [the King] is the person who’s taking a lot more time, following a little bit more intuition, and feeling super confident in their decisions. I don’t know how that all resonates with you.

Stef: Yeah, no, that’s crazy. This is a fun one. When I see this, what is it called? Ten of Pentacles. I just I think about… I mean, what’s worked is that I think we maybe didn’t quite know what we were doing when we started out, but… that also meant we didn’t have anyone to answer to so we just did what we wanted. And somehow it worked out enough that we could like sustain ourselves.

I feel super fortunate that we have always somehow had enough to, like, continue to make another album or continue to tour or just even, like get new instruments, or try new things. I don’t know, I just feel really fortunate… but not just money-wise, but also just like support like from the band.

I think that, yeah, just staying true to ourselves and being independent, I mean, now we do have a label, but for so long, we just released everything ourselves. And that’s what I see in [the Nine of Swords]. I think that just the fear of anything is what always holds us back like, things that aren’t even real or that don’t even exist yet. Or that we’re like, imagining or things like Oh, we should be here. We should be doing this by now. We should be here by now. Like all these shows and stuff really keep us from holding us back.

So yeah, I think this card, for me, is representing like, fearlessness, or at least just like realizing that we have the ability to conquer a lot of things that maybe we don’t think we can. And yeah I don’t know, I think getting rid of the expectation that every band has a certain course they have to take. Because like, that’s not been our journey and that’s fine, I really think that’s fine… I feel like, hopefully, we’re getting closer to this King of Swords. Our main goal, I think right now is to just stay together and make music. Like to put music first, I guess. When I see the King of Swords I feel like… he’s looking very regal and secured, his sword is like firmly planted. For me, this just says he’s making decisions from the right place. Yeah, I like this guy. I like this spread. It makes sense to me.