by Derek Schmidt
When I think about how I began my journey with tarot, I realize that it’s always been connected to my journey with music as a songwriter and composer.
The two hold different strategies for survival for myself, ways of being I couldn’t do without expressing.
When I realized the strong connection for the first time, the Major Arcana project – a series of songs for each trump card of the Thoth tarot deck- had begun.
I first I came to tarot when I was nineteen, young but already having experienced intense loss and pain in my life, looking out into the world for answers to make sense of who I was and all I had gone through.
I had just moved up to Berkeley for school after losing my mother to breast cancer, upending my plans of finishing school at NYU.
Much of my family was evangelical and conservative and I already had a complicated childhood being gay and was always more into reading books, writing poetry, and making up little songs on the piano.
So when I had moved up to Berkeley immediately felt more at home with people like me- artists and scholars and people who weren’t afraid to be their authentic weird selves.
I split the first tarot deck with my close friend and roommate, along with The Tarot Handbook by cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien.
Little did I know at the time that this Thoth deck and Arrien’s ideas would be so central to my entire tarot journey.
I was always amazed at the Thoth deck’s symbolism, incorporated from many cultures and traditions.
That syncretism spoke to me intellectually and spritually.
I was just trying to make sense of the world that was so much bigger than where I had come from, the cycles of growth within the cards, all of the aspects of human wisdom and challenges all embodied by a single card deck.
I used tarot more in this capacity as a wisdom text, and less for divinatory purposes, having faith only in the synchronicity of the cards I pulled.
Academics and writing had previously taken precedence because I still didn’t understand how music fit in my life and plans, but after my mom passed I realized I needed music as a language to express what I was going through and who I was in the world.
After graduation I began to take myself more seriously as a musician: writing, performing, composing, even delving into sound design for stage.
I recorded many albums, performed up and down the west coast, and saw both successes and frustrations living the life of an artist.
And then one day I began writing a song about the moon, and realized that my ideas about the moon were very much related to tarot ideas about the moon: the hidden, intuitive, and trickster nature of the moon, both revealing and misleading.
I had been trying to write songs with multiple layers of meaning, the personal and the universal, and I realized that I had this tarot practice that held both of those for me.
The words to the Moon came out of me fast and I was struck by how satisfied I was with it, and not too long after how excited I was to hear what the other cards “sounded” like.
Like the Art card, I was combining different parts of myself in an alchemy I didn’t know I needed.
I had wanted some large scale project like a concept album, but this felt so organic and intuitively correct, it no longer felt abstract, but something I needed to do.
It’s just like the moon subtly kicking off the biggest idea of life, a revealing of what had always been there or what could be, just below the surface.
For the next six years as I still continued to make music both with others and as a solo performer, composer and sound designer, I quietly built the Major Arcana.
I never started in their proper numerical order, but rather what I was drawn to at the time, from what was going on in my life at the time.
Sometimes the cards remained more aspirational, like the Emperor, where I wanted to embody a confidence and a leadership ability, or I wanted to contemplate the far seeing wisdom and perspective of the Aeon.
I was always thinking about the ideas of masculinity and femininity in the tarot and in the world, and how the tarot strikes balances between the two through various trump cards.
I knew the Death card would be intense for me.
The mysterious cellular change of that card and my contemplation really helped me enter into a universal experience of death and transformation, and made me feel a little less alone, a little less afraid of that unknown finality.
The crafting of each song became like months long meditations for me, entwining more and more my tarot practice as a kind of spirituality.
For me this journey really was a grounding of my art in the the magical, making my music more meaningful and purpose-driven.
I did end with the Universe song, because it felt so fitting, and since the project had taken so long and was essentially the largest creative work I’ve completed, I feel like I really understood the end of a cycle and the beginning of another.
I finished the Major Arcana project at such a different part of my life than when I first started with tarot: bruised and hurt by the world but stubbornly committed to surviving and holding hope to flourish.
Now I am an adult reaching middle age, taking what wisdom I can from those experiences, like the Queen of Wands, never forgetting my past as a key to self-knowledge.
It was strange to end the songwriting work which was both creative and spiritual practice, and I still feel the need to begin a similar project, but in 2018 I received a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission in order to professionally record and produce the album, which was a huge step for me and my little home studio.
I’ve had my hands in all aspects of this project, and I’m proud of what I’ve learned, both technically and spiritually and to have worked with some incredible people who believe in this work.
I also feel so lucky to have been able to combine these two passions of mine, to even have those two passions that bring me so much joy and contentedness.
And with this project I’ll always restate my indebtedness to the great Angeles Arrien, who passed away in 2014 as I was very much in the middle of Major Arcana and constantly engaged with her ideas.
My hope with this work is that I can inspire in others the same engagement with our wisdom traditions, and to provide through music a little sacred space and time for those that are looking for it.
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About the Author:
Derek Schmidt is a composer, songwriter, and sound designer living in San Francisco. He is a founder and host of Homophonic, a queer singer/songwriter showcase at Martuni’s, and the founder and lead musician for electronic pop duo Adonisaurus as well as chamber folk group All My Pretty Ones. In 2018 Derek received a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to complete the first iteration of his new solo work Major Arcana -a song cycle interpretation of each of the 22 trump cards of the tarot deck. He is currently attending California State University, East Bay in 2019 to earn his Masters in music composition. You can listen to Major Arcana and the rest of his music at his website, Bandcamp, and on Spotify.
all images by Fred Rowe