Vines is the project of Illinois-born and Brooklyn-based composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist Cassie Wieland. Before recording music under the moniker, Wieland mostly composed music for others to play in a classical music context, but the new project allowed her to experiment with vocal processing and lyric-based writing in a new way, at first through stark, slowed-down renditions of songs like MGMT’s ‘Kids’ and Bo Burnham’s ‘All Eyes on Me’. Today, Wieland has released her debut record as Vines, Birthday Party, which spans seven original tracks and closes out with a cover of Modest Mouse’s ‘The World at Large’. The line “My thoughts were so loud I couldn’t hear my mouth” is a fitting conclusion for an intimate yet hypnotically expansive collection, which swells around small, isolated phrases that resonate in an instant but whose meaning grows with each added texture and haunting repetition. Co-produced with Mike Tierney, Birthday Party offers access to an internal world that’s richer and warmer than the loneliness that pervades it, and in doing so, manages to bring it outward.
We caught up with Cassie Wieland for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about her musical background, the inspiration behind Birthday Party, covering Modest Mouse’s ‘The World at Large’, and more.
You have a background in composing music for others as well as interpreting other people’s music. What was your relationship to songwriting and writing lyrics beforehand, and how has it developed over the years?
Yeah, songwriting and writing lyrics is something that I have been afraid of for a lot of my musical career – or even before that, when I was first learning guitar and started to compose. The reason I gravitated towards music was because I could express myself in a way that didn’t use words. I grew up really shy, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that sort of format for expressing myself. I kind of just assumed that any lyrics that I would write would be stupid or corny, so it’s something that I scared myself out of for a long time. But when I started picking up this whole vocal processing thing, obviously it’s an instrument that needs words to power it, so I put myself in a situation where I needed to do the thing that I was scared of to get the result that I wanted. And that’s when I started practicing, with this EP. It’s very bare-bones when it comes to lyrics, but I sort of like that. I think one sentence over and over again, even though you’re saying the same words, can evolve in feeling and in inflection the more times you say it, like a mantra. I really wanted to play with that with this record and see how the words could evolve throughout the song.
When you started Vines as a project, did you have a specific vision for it, or was it mostly a vehicle for this kind of experimentation?
It actually started with a classical composition that I wrote; I wrote a 30-minute composition for a saxophone quartet and my vocal setup. I was very much only practicing in my bedroom when it came to performing, and I wanted to put my voice onstage finally. I had this residency at Roulette Intermedium in Brooklyn, and they told me I could do whatever I wanted, so I wrote this collection for my good friends ~Nois quartet and myself. That was more of a classical format, but that show got COVID canceled. I realized when the show got canceled how badly I wanted to do it, and at that point I was like, “I’ve always wanted to make a record, but it’s only been a conceptual or distant goal for me. I’m just going to take the money in my savings account and make a record with this and make it really what I want to make it.” I really wasn’t thinking about the end goal other than I wanted to make a piece of art my way. But it just so happened that at that time I was also trying to practice performance – microdose performance, if you will – by doing covers on Tiktok, and that sort of melded together with this process of making a record.
What did it mean for you to ask that question of how you could make it your way?
I wanted to make something that was closer to the music that I enjoy listening to. Most of my work up until that point had been very much in the classical scene, but I grew up listening to, like, Midwest emo and math rock, and I’m still very much into the indie world. But I thought I can’t do that, because that’s what I know, is just writing music for other people. I don’t know how to put together a record. This was my leap of faith to try it out.
Part of what’s so resonant about the approach of slowing down the songs you cover is that it also strips their emotions down to their core. I wonder if a similar thing happens when you work on original music as Vines, where you focus on small phrases and build them out until they reveal something deeper under the surface.
There’s definitely a relation there. Whenever I’m working on Vines stuff, whether it’s a cover or my original songs, I try to make that feeling of honesty and that feeling of directness drive whatever it is I’m doing. It’s funny, I mostly just started doing covers just to get better at the instrument and to get better at performing. There’s so much music out there that I love that I want to share my love for with people. But it is always really fun and interesting to see what lens I could put somebody else’s music through –and God, I hope they’re okay with it. [laughs] I haven’t really talk to many people that that I’ve covered. But I just try to take my passion for what I love to do and distill it down as much as possible.
You started writing the album around your January birthday. Do you think you’d remember those days differently if you hadn’t finished the record?
I do think making this record has allowed me to reclaim my birthday a little bit, because this whole record is really a journal entry of past birthdays that I’ve had. My birthday is in January, which is usually a very slow, quiet, cold time, and I have so many memories of just being alone on my birthday. Not out of isolation or anything, but it made me look back on the nature of celebrations, and how they can feel isolating in a very strange way. Especially in college, where I grew up in the town that I went to college in, so I was in this desolate college town for my birthday. Everybody else was still on winter break at home, and I have these memories of just walking around in the snow by myself – I think everyone has cried on their birthday, at least lot of people that I know. Even the titles of the EP, like ‘candles’ and drive thru’ – that was literally just me getting steak and shake at the drive through alone on my birthday.
From the reception so far, I see that a lot of people felt the same thing, which also makes you feel a little less alone.
There’s definitely that theme of loneliness behind celebratory occasions, but there’s one instrumental track, ‘one more’, that stretches out in a way that feels like it’s coming from a different, more hopeful place. What memories or images does it stir up for you?
I actually love that because it started out as a really depressing track. ‘one more’, for me, originally represented the idea of, like, “Just one more drink and I’ll be fine.” But I’m really glad that you mentioned that, because my co-producer, Mike Tierney and I, were in the studio trying to reconfigure it for a record, and we both gravitated towards a more positive ending. It starts in minor and then it ends very major, and that wasn’t in the original song. But it does in the context of the record feel like a little bit of a turning point where there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
How did the nature of the songs more generally transform as a result of collaboration?
Because the record started off as a classical composition, it started very internal and very much a solo act. But the whole project very gradually proved me wrong, in that I thought I was gonna have to do this all alone, and more people gradually came into it and brought it to life. My friend Andrew came in to help produce the ‘World at Large’ cover, and when we brought the original saxophone quartet, ~Nois, who came back into the studio, their parts had to be totally different because we changed everything. So they were providing feedback and we’re cutting and pasting, rearranging. My friend Adrianne [Munden-Dixon] came in for violin, and my husband Adam [Holmes] came in to play drums on the record. It just showed me how much I like working with other people. I don’t know why I thought I had to do all of this alone, it seemed very daunting. But it was just so easy because of these great musicians that wanted to be a part of it.
I’m curious how much ended up filtering out lyrically. Did you start with these small phrases, or did you have a bunch of notes and thoughts that you had to distill?
Because this was my first attempt at lyrics, I really just wrote them down and I kept them. At the time that I was songwriting, it was just a no thoughts kind of moment for me where I searched for one sentence that I liked, and I was like, “Alright, this is it, we’re sticking with this.” But since then, I have been journaling a lot more. I have several chaotic notes in my phone, more lyrics. I think that forcing myself to just come up with one sentence opened something up in me; I think on the next record there’ll be maybe even two sentences per song. [laughs]
It sounds like a turning point musically, but it also must have been helpful and freeing on a personal level.
It was really helpful in allowing me to see that not worrying about the end product actually made me a lot happier and a lot more free for me. Making this record was about about the trying – about letting myself do something new, letting myself sit down once a day, sometimes once a week if I’m busy or not feeling it, and just creating and not worrying about the end product, or how people are going to see it, or how I’m going to present myself when it’s time to do so. And just trusting – I know “trust the process” is so corny, but that’s that’s what I did. What was supposed to happen still happened, and now I have all of these tools, where I feel I can journal, I can say more or less if I want to if I feel like it. It’s been really great for that.
What was the thinking behind ending the record with the ‘World at Large’ cover?
I was working on the cover around the time that we were mastering the record, and it wasn’t originally supposed to be on the record. But it was actually in a PR meeting, I was talking with Jake Saunders, and we were thinking about potentially doing a third single. He was like, “Are there any covers on this album?” And I was like, “No.” And he was like, “Do you want there to be?” At first I thought that I shouldn’t put a cover on the album, because I’m presenting myself in the form of original works, and I didn’t want it to look gimmicky to put a cover on the record. But I think that song fit so well into what I was trying to say that it just made sense. I listened all the way through to the album, including the cover at the end, and it felt like such a nice epilogue to the story. On top of that, that song has so many words. [laughs] I thought it was really nice that I’m saying like two sentences for 30 minutes, and then 30 sentences in two minutes. It created a sort of full circle moment.
Birthdays, like any kind of celebration, often makes us think of home. When you sing about it on the second to last track, what is it that comes to mind?
That initial lyric, “I guess I’ll go home,” came from a memory I have of getting stood up on my birthday. [laughs] Devastating for me at the moment, but again, it was a sense of, I wanted to reclaim that moment, because now I love going home after like a social event. I think at the time, that memory, it felt like home was a last resort. But I feel like over time, I’ve gotten to find my own home in myself and take agency over deciding what home and what comfort is to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Vines’ Birthday Party is out now.