Ethel Cain: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
For the first time, Hayden Silas Anhedönia had the unique honour of seeing her fans dress up as her this Halloween.
Or rather, it wasn’t Anhedönia, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter, that they were emulating. It was Ethel Cain, the mythical figure and stage character that Anhedönia invented to build out a larger-than-life story to foreground her dreamy, gothic songs that circle around the dark subjects of cults, kidnappings and cannibalism. “They were drawing my tattoos on and wearing their weird white prairie dresses and pulling their hair back into a bun, looking like the baddest bitch in the Amish village,” Anhedönia gushes, recalling the pictures of her fans in fancy dress shared on socials throughout the weekend. Dialling in from Los Angeles on Halloween morning, she looks relaxed and low-key, wearing a camo long-sleeve shirt with her straight brown hair tucked behind her ears. “I was like, ‘This is so cute.’ I’d love to see more of it.”
With her forehead tattoos and ghostly frocks, Cain does seem like the perfect muse for the spooky holiday. But all year round, her fans idolise her as an icon of wretched glamour and aspirational heathenism, whose vivid songwriting skewers the rotten heart of small-town America. Her self-produced tracks, which feature gravitational guitar riffs offset by Cain’s soaring voice, ride a thin line between fact and fiction – inspired by Anhedönia’s own sheltered upbringing in the Southern Baptist church of Perry, Florida. “It’s fun to take my life experiences and then twist them into something cooler. Well, not cooler,” she catches herself. “Geez, it’s terrible. But more dramatic and eventful. ‘Cause I spent most of my childhood being like, ‘Well, if I’m gonna be this miserable, I at least wish something cool would happen.’”
After garnering attention with last year’s Inbred EP, which established the Ethel Cain character as a powerful and audacious figure even as she navigates the depraved everyday, Anhedönia saw her listenership gain new fervour around Preacher’s Daughter. Released in May, her epic debut album reads as a cautionary tale of putting one’s faith in toxic forms of love, falling for the twisted promise of the American Dream, and being doomed by your own lineage. Inspired by the arena rock of Def Leppard, the smouldering funk of Funkadelic and Prince, as well as the haunting slowcore of Grouper, she crafted songs that simmer and unravel through reverberating sonics. Many of the tracks eventually crescendo into massive walls of sound, inspiring the same kind of euphoria that one might feel at the climax of a gospel song or spiritual.
Jacket: Better With Age Vintage
Despite veering further from typical pop song structure on Preacher’s Daughter, Anhedönia found herself the recipient of the trappings of pop stardom nonetheless. After the rave reviews came fashion brands, the endorsement of her heroes… and the superfans. Givenchy asked her to model in a campaign, and she later made her New York Fashion Week debut walking for Eckhaus Latta, as well as Miu Miu in Paris. She got to meet and perform with her musical idol Florence Welch at an arena show in between making her way across the US on tour, getting second-hand high onstage from a crowd in Pittsburgh “smoking fat blunts”, and meeting listeners who offered their sincere reflections. “They’re like, ‘Your music really touched me. It really helped me through some stuff,’” she says.
Anhedönia believes Preacher’s Daughter resonated so widely because it filled a previous void of albums that are “specifically about growing up as an outsider in a religious community in the South,” she reflects. “There’s a little niche group of Southern religious ex-communicated kids who are all kind of floating around and don’t have anything tying them to each other. So it was nice to start a through-line and be like, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together.’”
Even as her music inspires intense devotion from her fans, many of whom call her “mother” or “meemaw”, Anhedönia is as down to earth as you would expect from someone who grew up stuck in a religious town, shielded from pop culture and homeschooled by her mother and deacon father. The modelling, in particular, took some acclimatising to, not least because she always “had a really weird relationship with my face and, you know, my body and myself as a whole,” making the shift doubly surreal. “I’ve always been like, ‘Oh my god, I look like the cryptkeeper!’ My comfort zone is very much [being] at home in my Goodwill clothes.”
Trousers: Better With Age Vintage
Anhedönia’s notion of what home is has changed often since she first fled Perry at age 18, two years after telling her mom she liked boys, which, in her town, meant instant ostracisation (she publicly came out as trans on her 20th birthday). “I didn’t have a lot of freedom or autonomy,” she explains. “I was restless then as I’m restless now, so now that I have the ability to go, I just go.” Maybe she’ll settle down one day, but for now, she’s in the midst of moving into a new house in Pittsburgh, a coal miner’s town that is “so frigid and industrial – I love it,” she chirps. “I love to have a new bedroom, a new set of roads to drive down while I listen to my demos, a new backdrop to get into trouble in and have new experiences.”
Being in different settings is crucial for gathering new source material for Anhedönia, who is always searching for nuggets of inspiration for what she and her friends call “the movie playing in our heads all the time”. There are “tiny little bits of life” that pop out at you, she explains. Maybe it’s the way the light shines through a tree, the corner of an abandoned building, or the way the grass is growing around a car in someone’s front yard. Then, “suddenly there’s a character, and a place, and a personality”, she explains, beaming. “It’s like there’s a story jumping out at you, and it’s everywhere. All these little things that you put together and suddenly you have your next project. I feel like I’m out gathering berries or acorns or something.”
“[Ethel Cain] is kind of like the burnt offering sacrifice that had to be made. She was the scared little girl who you have to move on from before you can [be] that powerful woman that you want to become”
Collecting visual ingredients is also how Anhedönia still uses Tumblr, one of the first lifelines outside her childhood bubble. Sneaking online at age 13, it was through the platform that she was able to connect with fellow listeners of Florence + the Machine, who she calls her “North Star” and “silent mentor”. Through this fandom, she made friends outside of her hometown for the first time. Friends who introduced her to a world of indie artists that influence her to this day: Daughter, Banks, Susanne Sundfør and Imogen Heap.
Nightgown: Vintage, Jacket: Better With Age Vintage, Jeans: Givenchy
“It was literally this ragtag group of international teenagers that brought me into the real world and showed me that there’s so much more to life than the brainwashing of my hometown and the church,” she reflects. There, she could geek out with others about art, music, literature and film – all cascading into, and overlapping one another, on the feed – to the fullest extent. “I think that it was that kind of freedom that has allowed me to be the artist I am today, where I’m just doing whatever the fuck I wanna do.”
Around that time, Anhedönia also started writing her first songs, which were “about the same things I’m writing about now” but from a teenage mindset. “They were very much about wanting to be loved and understood, trying to come to terms with not being ashamed of yourself, like, ‘I’m human. I’m perfect the way I am.’ It was much more therapeutic than it was creative. But I wouldn’t show anybody the songs. My mom would be like, ‘Oh, you wrote a song, let me see,’ and I was like, ‘No, you can’t. It’s about you and daddy.’”
It was later, around age 19, when she could produce her own songs on GarageBand, that Anhedönia knew for certain she would be an artist. After recording vocals with the microphone on her Apple earbuds, laying down an eerie synth, and drenching it in way too much reverb, adrenaline flooded through her. “It was better than drugs, better than sex, better than anything,” she recalls. “I got this insane rush from making this song, and I was like, ‘I have to do this for the rest of my life.’”
From the moment Anhedönia first invented Ethel Cain, the purpose of the persona as a storytelling device has been constantly shifting. At the beginning of her career, Anhedönia described her as a vision of powerful femininity and a monstrous cult leader – which is a thread that she promises to pick back up in future projects. In those days, Cain was “the woman that I wanted to be”, explaining that she later realised that truly stepping into womanhood involved “holding a lot of fears and a lot of baggage”.
That’s partly why Anhedönia felt that she had to kill off her stage character in Preacher’s Daughter, the narrative of which follows Cain as she sets off across the country to pursue a whirlwind romance with a man who eventually murders her. “She was kind of like the burnt offering sacrifice that had to be made,” Anhedönia admits. “She was the scared little girl who you have to move on from before you can [be] that powerful woman that you want to become.”
“I spend half of my time looking at old photos of my family – my parents, my grandparents. I’m a huge believer in knowing where you come from”
Even as Anhedönia maintains that her story is not the same as Cain’s, there’s enough overlap for her to inject some of her own family history into her work, especially now that her relationship with her parents is solid. For the album’s catchy, 80s rock-influenced single American Teenager, she went back to Perry with friend and regular collaborator Silken Weinberg to shoot a music video, the majority of which was shot on her mum’s high school football field. Her mother, a former cheerleader, suggested that Anhedönia try on her own uniform which was still intact in a closet. “It fit like a glove,” she says.
“It was very special to wear that,” Anhedönia elaborates. “I spend half of my time looking at old photos of my family – my parents, my grandparents. I’m a huge believer in knowing where you come from. So many people, so many stories, crossed and led to me being here – for better or worse. So I love to pay homage to my family whenever I can, and those stories and those lives that led to mine.”
That’s likely why Anhedönia plans to focus on the life of Cain’s mother in the 70s for her next album in a trilogy that’s already mapped out in her ambitious, cinematically-minded imagination. But before that, she’s planning to release an EP that serves as a prequel to Preacher’s Daughter, catching up with Cain in high school and detailing her first love – the same guy she sings about on A House in Nebraska – as well as some other “things planned for the next year or two”.
For those who want a hint about the next Ethel Cain era, Anhedönia implores them to merely scroll her Tumblr feed, which is a fluid reflection of the aesthetic and narrative world that she wants to pursue next. Back when she was making Preacher’s Daughter, she found herself drawn to 70s-era Southern Gothic images with muddy hues, pictures of teenagers in their bedrooms, and old abandoned houses. “Now it’s like brutalist architecture and weird art, it’s getting very black-and-white,” she lists off, raising a cheeky eyebrow as if she’s about to drop a secret. “If you want the vibes of whatever project is next, start looking at my Tumblr, like, a year in advance. ‘Cause I’m getting in that headspace.”
Preacher’s Daughter is out now via Daughters of Cain