- Courtesy Of Varsity
- Varsity will perform at ArtsRiot in Burlington on Saturday
Jubilant indie-rock quintet Varsity emerged from Chicago's DIY scene in the mid-2010s. Lyricist/keyboardist Stephanie Smith fronts the project and, in a recent interview with Seven Days, describes her hometown scene as supportive and inclusive.
"We all want the same thing," she says of her band and the Windy City's other burgeoning acts. "It's not necessarily a zero-sum game. It doesn't feel cutthroat or competitive. Just because [we] have something doesn't mean someone else can't also have it."
Aside from fronting Varsity, Smith, 28, has experience in commercial and documentary film production. Noteworthy among her credits is her role as an associate producer on director Steve James' (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) latest project, "America to Me." The 10-part docuseries examines intersections of race, culture and education at Oak Park and River Forest High School, located in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. It premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and is expected to air on Starz later this year.
Varsity perform on Saturday, February 10, at ArtsRiot in Burlington. Locals Bleach Day, the Onlys and Father Figuer open. Ahead of that show, we chatted with Smith by phone about song meanings, documentary filmmaking and a curious celebrity crush.
SEVEN DAYS: I really like your song "Turns Out." Can you unpack this line: "But I hate that you don't love me, and I don't care"? It sounds like you're madder at yourself than the person the song addresses.
STEPHANIE SMITH: Honestly, I wrote the song a really long time ago. What happens is it [eventually] starts to mean something different. Trying to get into the head space of when I wrote it — I imagine [it] was probably the kind of thing where you're madder at yourself for being infatuated with someone than somebody not liking or loving you. "Why am I doing this to myself?"
SD: Does the band ever look back on old work and collectively talk about how song meanings change?
SS: We talk about it in the context of songwriting and how [it's] changed. Because all of the lyrics are written by me, the mentality or the sentiment behind the song really is only coming from me. When we revisit or relearn an old song, we realize that our songwriting has gotten more complex or intricate. But I don't think we reminisce about the head space, probably because I write all the lyrics. [The rest of the band] isn't necessarily even privy to the thoughts behind the songs.
SD: To me, the name Varsity implies the pursuit of something unattainable or the act of putting something on a pedestal. Feel free to demystify it.
SS: You know how when you use a word so much it almost loses its meaning? We use ["varsity"] so much in the context of the band's name that I've lost objectivity about it.
It would be a lie to say that we named our band because we're striving for something more. I don't ever want it to sound elitist or pretentious. For me, the name has lost all connotations. We chose the name because we liked how it sounded, among all of the other terrible names we had written down in a mass text message. I wish there was a better story. But I really like hearing how other people interpret it.
SD: That's funny, because I've talked to lots of bands who've told me that major decisions get made in mass texts.
SS: It seems like not a great way to communicate. We constantly have a Facebook thread going. Because we all work and have different jobs and are available at different times, it's actually turned out to be the best way to communicate. Obviously, we talk during practice, but [that] space is so sacred that we really want to use that time to play music and not talk business or logistics.
SD: Speaking of your lives outside the band, what can you tell us about your role as an associate producer on the docuseries "America to Me?"
SS: It was a very large project, [filmed] at my former high school. I still had ties [there], so I knew about the project and was interested in hopping on board because I really enjoy working with youth.
My job was to be the liaison between the crew, directors and executive producers — and our subjects, which were high school students who, to varying degrees, had experience with film. But none of them knew what it meant to be followed for a whole year in their classes, at home and with friends.
SD: Was it weird to be close to the subjects but also behind the scenes?
SS: There are definitely boundaries. I thought that it would be black-and-white. Part of forming a good relationship with students, especially high schoolers, is [trust]. You're constantly negotiating your professional role with being a friend and a confidant.
If you see the documentary, you'll understand. These are exceptional people, and toward the end of the project it wasn't hard for them to open up to me. It was an intense learning experience for me and a growing experience for them. You're growing [by] leaps and bounds every year in high school, no matter if a film crew is following you or not.
SD: What was it like being back at your old high school?
SS: That was really nuts. Super nuts. I was definitely tiptoeing around at first. The security guards thought I was a kid. I was trying not to run into my old teachers. I would have flashbacks of things that happened in high school, like, This is where my locker was, or, I remember ditching school out of this door. In the end, I was able to be like, "Um, I'm not a student. I work here — temporarily."
SD: So, since this is our Love & Marriage Issue, can I ask if you're a romantic person in general?
SS: I think in the broad sense of the word — not just applying it to relationships. Like, I love showing love for my friends and affection for my partner. And I love Valentine's Day, which I know is a very unpopular opinion.
SD: It sure is! What do you love about it?
SS: I just really like the excuse to tell people that you love them. I really like red and pink and making cards and all the crafty things. I'm not so concerned with the dating aspect. I like that, and I do expect to do something with my boyfriend on Valentine's Day, but it's more about the excuse to tell people that you care about them.
SD: Do you have any embarrassing childhood celebrity crushes?
SS: John Mayer — No. 1.
SD: Wow, that's so embarrassing.
SS: Every time he puts out a new album, I still listen to it out of respect for my junior-high self.
SD: You had that answer locked and loaded, which must mean that you really mean it.
SS: I used to have dreams — like, up until high school — that he would meet me after school in his limo and we would drive around together. That's how insidious [it was].