Track-by-Track: Varsity Measure a Year in the Life With ‘Souvenirs,’ Their Sweeping & Soaring 4th Album

Varsity © Clare Byrne
Varsity © Clare Byrne
The capstone to a year of monthly singles releases, Varsity’s fourth album ‘Souvenirs’ is a captivating collection of cherished memories, intimate emotions, and fleeting moments brought to life through an expansive indie rock soundtrack.
for fans of Alvvays, Yumi Zouma, Snail Mail
Stream: “Done With Bits” – Varsity

A souvenir is a memento kept to remind the owner of a place or time. Each song represents a moment in time from the past year: Not only what music we were listening to and being inspired by, but also where each one of us was at emotionally.

The cast of Rent posed the question, and Chicago band Varsity now have the answer: How do you measure a year in a life?

With souvenirs: Memories of lives lived and special moments shared, snapshots of our highs, our mids, and our lows forever enshrined in items and artifacts – in this case, songs – that transcend the seconds that tick, tick, tick away each day. From January through December 2023, Varsity wrote, recorded, mixed, mastered, and released a song a month, until they had compiled twelve songs that captured, through their music and their lyrics, the twists and turns of a year in the life.

Independently released February 16, Souvenirs is a captivating collection of cherished memories, intimate emotions, and fleeting moments brought to life through a spellbinding and far-reaching, yet nonetheless cohesive indie rock soundtrack.

Souvenirs - Varsity © Clare Byrne
Souvenirs – Varsity
Find, soft yellow light
Sorry it’s not all the time
I like to go swimming
in your ultramarine eyes

I think i can keep this up
‘Cause I have the body & constitution
For your love,
aisy chain my wrist to yours
I don’t care if you open a book
I don’t care if you close the tab
I don’t care if you have the money
For a girl like — that
I don’t care if you show up late
I don’t care that you drive too fast
I bet we couldn’t… do it again
What’s the point in being alone?
– “Done With Bits,” Varsity

It was a bold, ambitious project for the five-piece – and one that fell, mostly by coincidence, on Varsity’s tenth year together as a band. Since releasing their debut single in 2013, the midwestern indie darlings – today comprised of vocalist-keyboardist Stef Smith, guitarists Dylan Weschler and Patrick Stanton, bassist Paul Stolz, and drummer Jake Stolz – have made a name for themselves through three beloved studio albums, two EPs, and one compilation record, together with innumerable tours and unforgettable live shows all over North America.

Varsity © Clare Byrne
Varsity © Clare Byrne

Varsity’s latest album – and the year-long project that led to its creation – was born out of a post-pandemic itch to make music together, combined with a desire to challenge themselves, experiment with their songs, and get out of their comfort zones.

“After the pandemic we were all eager to write, play, and record together,” frontwoman Stef Smith tells Atwood Magazine. “We thought back to some of our favorite experiences releasing music and we all agreed that releasing double singles was so rewarding, we got to put out songs on a faster timeline and receive immediate feedback. We decided to challenge ourselves to release a song a month for all of 2023.”

“This was incredibly rewarding and challenging! We got to work with new people like Michael MacDonald and Bim Bom studios, and try our own hand at mixing and recording. I will say, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! We had about five ideas in the chamber, but after that we were doing the whole process of writing, arranging, recording, mixing, and mastering every month. I think we grew so much as musicians, and we also learned to let things go when they weren’t perfect. Luckily our first ideas, intuition, and trust in the process led us to making an album we’re really proud of.”

Reference point
Rеferencing my own
shamefully еponymous thoughts

Written on years like rocks
Collected by days on the beach
Sushi, the late nights, and the wasting of hours
Is it real? Is it fake?
Is it all just a phase?
And is it over? And is it okay?
Do we know if there’s any other way?
Am I useful? Am I sane?
Am I a bird in a gilded cage?
Am I supposed to be feeling this way?
And are we just throwing it all down the drain?
– “Reference Point,” Varsity

Smith and her bandmates look back on this past year as a period of collective growth and artist discovery.

“Since this is the first time we have recorded ourselves we really leaned into experimentation,” she explains. “We played with microphone placement, whisper tracks, screams, midi instruments, recording loops played through amps, and using different percussion instruments (heyyy chimes). If anything, we became more bold with our experiments as we moved through the months, which I think is due to confidence and honestly the time crunch. I think we also were more loose with song structures and genres, while still sounding like us.”

No idea was too outlandish, and no inspiration too far-flung to be considered as the band jammed and wrote together. Often, they would pick one song or album to be their north star, and create with that in mind – for example, Blur’s “Coffee & TV” spurred the jangly “Devil’s Tangerine,” Paul McCartney’s Ram resulted in the spirited “Bought the Farm,” and Brooklyn band Crumb were the reference point for the psychedelic fever dream “Reference Point” (pun intended).

Sleep to get peace, make it easier to deal
Cause I can’t have you we met inside a dream
You don’t know me from the devil’s tangerine
But I can see you any time on my screen
We reconvene across a table
It feels like I’m able
To reach out and touch you
To tell you I love you
And hear it right back
I wake up early, I don’t open my eyes
I’m still in silver skies, riding on pillow highs
Ambien scream
Yeah I’m swimming in the hangover of a dream
– “Devil’s Tangerine,” Varsity

Compared to past albums like 2020’s Fine Forever and 2018’s Parallel Person, Smith feels that Souvenirs captures a more authentic, perhaps holistic version of Varsity’s multifaceted artistic identity; whereas the group’s natural inclination has previously been to painstakingly agonize over each track and every creative decision, their self-imposed rules and restrictions meant learning to embrace quick choices and relying on gut decisions.

“With Parallel Person and especially with Fine Forever, we labored over a lot of the details to make sure that those records sounded exactly how we wanted them to. Those are obviously important aspects of making a record, but with Souvenirs there was more immediacy in the songwriting.”

“There was really no time to scrap a song and start over, we had to work on it and get it to a spot that we were happy with. We had to trust our gut and intuition way more, and I feel like this made us stronger songwriters. Letting go of small stuff in the service of the big picture was a huge take away and making Souvenirs flexed a different artistic muscle than the previous two records did.”

Varsity © Clare Byrne
Varsity © Clare Byrne

Smith candidly describes Souvenirs as unexpected, introspective, and goofy.

The record’s title, beyond reflecting its penultimate track and final single (which Varsity recorded and released in December), is a nod to the notion of these songs standing for something more.

“A souvenir is a memento kept to remind the owner of a place or time,” she says. “Each song represents a moment in time from the past year: Not only what music we were listening to and being inspired by, but also where each one of us was at emotionally. The songs are snapshots in time compiled in the final form of an album.”

While Souvenirs may, arguably and on paper, be something of a compilation album, the overall record is impressively cohesive, fluid, and engaging. The band avoided the temptation of tracking the album in chronological order, and instead came up with a sequence that packs the biggest punch for the listening experience, accentuating and embracing moments of both higher and lower energy.

The album’s journey is bookended on the front with the vibrant melodies and propulsive beat of “Done With Bits,” and on the back with the expansive and impassioned six-and-a-half minute finale, “Cowboy Killer.” In between those two memorable tracks is a stunning sea of seductive songs. From the dazzling indie pop radiance of “Take It the Wrong Way” and the sonic fury of “Reference Point” to the hypnotic, steady pulse of “Black Ice” and the cathartic release of “Head in the Clouds, Souvenirs has a little something for all tastes throughout the indie rock spectrum, bringing together disparate sounds and unlikely, but well-fitting musical neighbors with genuine charm and gusto.

“There’s a few songs that jump out immediately,” Smith says on the topic of her own favorites. “‘Done With Bits’ was the first one we wrote and recorded, and it felt like, ‘Okay, we’re actually going for this.’ It got us back in the headspace of making music together again. We’re also really proud of ‘Devil’s Tangerine.’ It came together really fast and Michael absolutely killed it with the mixing. The loud and quiet parts really work well together and we’re really happy with how the vocals turned out. Also ‘Souvenirs’ was a highlight because it was like finally getting to the finish line, and wrapping the whole project up and putting a nice bow on it. It kinda ties everything together.”

Smith has plenty of lyrical highlights as well. There is a line in ‘Cowboy Killer’ that says ‘suitcase at your feet,’ which Dylan misheard as ‘suitcase atrophy’ and it just turned into that because it’s so good. I also like the outro of ‘Souvenirs,’ especially ‘like a ring full of keys to old haunts, it’s the smell of your house growing up.’”

Varsity © Clare Byrne
Varsity © Clare Byrne

Souvenirs is feverish, it’s fuzzy, it’s bold, buzzy, churning, and charged.

It’s Varsity’s way of measuring a year in the life – and what a year it was!

“It was a challenging and rewarding process, and we just hope people enjoy listening to the songs and find parts of it they can relate to,” Smith shares. “It made us more confident in songwriting and our ability to record an entire record ourselves, which we had never done previously. I don’t think we’d attempt this method again, but some of the techniques and process will be influential in the next record.”

Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Varsity’s Souvenirs with Atwood Magazine as stephanie smith takes us track-by-track, month-by-month through the music and lyrics of the band’s fourth studio album!

— —

:: stream/purchase Souvenirs here ::
:: connect with Varsity here ::
Stream: ‘Souvenirs’ – Varsity

:: Inside Souvenirs ::

Souvenirs - Varsity © Clare Byrne

— —

Done With Bits

(recorded in January)
This song was the most exciting for us to write. It feels like a “classic” Varsity tune to me. Driving guitars, big soaring emotional vocals, a synth solo…. And it was also the first song we did when we decided to take this project on, so there’s a lot of optimism behind it, and I feel like it comes through in both the music and the lyrics. Three band members got married this year and this was definitely in the forefront of my mind writing this song. It’s about the admiration for the less flashy qualities of a romantic partner like laying on the couch next to you after a long day, going on walks together, and being reliable. Also part of the reason we put it first on the album.

Take It the Wrong Way

(recorded in June)
The main guitar melody for “Take it the Wrong Way had been kicking around during our practices for a bit. It wasn’t until we finally nailed the back half of this that the song really started coming together. The bridge is very fun to sing and play!

Reference Point

(recorded in March)
For a short period of time in March we experimented a bit with playing different instruments and listening to a lot of the band Crumb. Reference Point was the result. We also wanted to do something a little different with the vocals, which led us to the spoken word section in the middle of this song. We like doing these kinds of psychedelic leaning songs whenever they start to move in that direction. This song is about the end of the world as we know it, a theme that keeps cropping up no matter how hard we try to push it down! All of a sudden it’s not so crazy to think that things like busyness, to-do lists, and McDonalds might not exist forever.

Good To Be Bad

(recorded in August)
We had a hard time figuring out how this song would come together but suddenly after listening to ELO’s disco jam “Last Train to London” this song clicked into place. Not saying this is a disco song (although it might be as close as Varsity ever gets) but something about the spirit of disco lightened up our approach and freed us up to make a breezy song about dancing. This is also the first time we used the chimes in a song, which was fun for us.

Black Ice

(recorded in April)
Black Ice is our attempt at writing a Wilco song. It also sounds like snow thawing and spring coming. “Winter knocks you back.” Stef wrote the lyrics to this song after her grandma died and it’s about loss but also fond remembering. Our studio space happens to be on the same block as her grandma’s house, so going to practice was a bittersweet reminder.

With Me

(recorded in September)
We received a lot of feedback that this song resonates with people. The down-tempo contemplating vibe was like a breath in the midst of this sometimes frantic project. Not to be too broad, but this song is simply about persevering with some sort of joy through big and little battles. Finding joy in simple things like foraging for your food, lighting a candle, and sharing a meal, the small breaths we take in the midst of our “busy busy” lives.

Head in the Clouds

(recorded in July)
Head in the Clouds is about a beloved figure who didn’t feel so beloved. We love big key changes and were really happy to include one for the final chorus of this song.

Without You

(recorded in November)
Sometimes time catches up to you and you make decisions that you probably wouldn’t make if you had more time to think about it, but oftentimes it works out. Without You was one of those times! We messed with the structure and recorded through a crunchy pre-amp. Lyrically this song is about intrusive thoughts that pop into your head as you’re doing about your daily routine. (It’s worth noting that Pat and Stef both got married this Fall so as you can imagine, time was a precious resource!!)

Devil’s Tangerine

(recorded in May)
Musically “Devil’s Tangerine” was inspired by the song “Coffee & TV” by Blur. This was one of our favorite songs to write and record, it came together very fast. Lyrically the song deals with nightmares and seeing unknowns in your sleep. We wanted the song to have sort of a jittery unsetting vibe, and I think we nailed it. We recorded Stef screaming a bunch and layered it throughout the song. “The devil is making a scene”

Bought the Farm

(recorded in October)
This one was loosely inspired by Paul McCartney’s Ram, but we had this idea of a really heavy interlude between jaunty verses. The lyrics are a bit goofy like Paul’s.


(recorded in December)
This was the last song we recorded for the project, and to me it feels like a giant exhale. We knew we wanted to reflect on the project and the year past, and we brought all the themes together for the big bridge at the end. The idea of souvenirs, memories, all jumbled and chaotic in your head. “I have a piece of your life in a pocket of mine”. Luckily we have the songs on this album to memorialize all the months of this past year, like little souvenirs.

Cowboy Killer

(recorded in February)
For our second song of the year, we still had big ambitions and less awareness of our self imposed deadlines. This resulted in the almost 7-minute “Cowboy Killer.” We really like writing these long moody songs that take time to set a scene and a vibe (“Alone In My Principles,” “Sicko World”) and wanted to do another one! The song is about an urban cowboy type who takes himself very seriously, but does anyone else?

— —

:: stream/purchase Souvenirs here ::
:: connect with Varsity here ::

— — — —

Souvenirs - Varsity © Clare Byrne

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