Ethel Cain and the great American epic
It’s 11am in Alabama and Hayden Silas Anhedönia is having the perfect Southern morning.
“I just ate a bowl of Cheerios and I feel right as rain,” she beams over Zoom, long brown hair draped over a t-shirt emblazoned with the header of the 107-year-old student newspaper FSView & Florida Flambeau. Behind her a cross-stitched bible verse hangs in a frame on a 70s wood-panelled wall, recognisable from her Instagram feed and artwork as Ethel Cain – the musical project in which she crafts an American gothic blend of dream pop, slowcore and country.
Anhedönia has been living in Alabama for the past nine months. Before that, she was renting a converted 19th-century church in rural Indiana, and before that, several other strange places, including a poorly-insulated and bug-infested house in the back of a car lot in Tallahassee. A “restless” soul, she likes to move every year. “I kind of throw a dart at a map and apply for like 50 houses, and whichever one I get first, I just pack up and move into,” she says. “One day I want to buy a piece of property and build my dream house and live in it until I’m dead, but until then I want to see as many states as possible. I want to live in New Mexico at some point, maybe Wisconsin. I just kind of hop around, you know? Why not?”
It’s not hard to guess where this lust for exploration comes from. Anhedönia grew up in a Southern Baptist community in a small town in the Florida Panhandle. Her father was a deacon, and her mother a singer in the choir. Homeschooled and divorced from pop culture, with a “Christian music only” rule in the house, her upbringing was cloistered and conservative. Escape, for the most part, was only possible through imagination. Having left the church at 16, four years before she would come out as trans, Anhedönia – now 24 – describes the experience as “like being raised in a room with no windows”.
Ethel Cain, then, has given her a way of working through the traumatic events of her childhood and an outlet through which to reclaim religion for herself. Through vivid storytelling and a visual aesthetic that teeters between eerie family photo album and sleazy polaroids stuffed inside a motel bible, Ethel Cain embraces the American South in all its contradictions and nuances – from poverty and aspiration to god and the weather. Previously she has described the character of Ethel as “the unhappy wife of a corrupt preacher” and a matriarchal figure who “looks loving and soft” but also like “she could rip your heart out with her bare hands”. As for how she relates to Anhedönia, she’s “an imagining of what I wish I could have been. She’s all-powerful, in control, and nobody can do anything to her that she doesn’t want done to her.” However, it’s only with the arrival of her debut album, Preacher’s Daughter, released through her own Daughters of Cain label, that fans get to meet Ethel Cain in full.
Across 13 tracks, Preacher’s Daughter depicts a character consumed by religion and grappling with desire, shame and fear. Anhedönia’s EPs – 2019’s Carpet Bed and Golden Age, and 2021’s Inbred – conjured an Ethel Cain universe that is haunted and hopeless. The lyrics detail substance abuse, toxic sex, self-harm and poverty, and the sound is as swampy as the Southern environment they bring to life. “I’ve always loved the sound of a lazy guitar with too much reverb and a slow vocal. It’s just like a summer’s day,” she says. “It gets so hot down here that your brain starts to feel almost like you’re high. You’re sweating and it’s hot and the bugs are so loud and you enter this dreamscape where things don’t feel quite real.”
“I struggled with my religious upbringing for years after I became an adult and right now, right at the tail-end of this record, I’ve realised I’ve made peace with everything”
On Preacher’s Daughter, however, the sound is cleaner and more expansive. Everything that lay stifled and murky on previous releases is blown up to monumental proportions, with its shimmering, sky-scraping pop vying for attention alongside towering doom metal and guitar riffs so slick they would make Gary Rossington blush. Most of the songs are extended power ballads complete with 80s snares, resonant piano and Slash-outside-the church-in-November-Rain-style guitar solos. It follows in the lineage of Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Prince, elevating everyday reality into epic fantasy. All-American iconography jumps to the fore in the album’s most sweeping and tender moments (American Teenager, Western Nights), where there are gas stations and bar fights; girls “crying under the bleachers” and a boy who “never looked more beautiful on his Harley in the parking lot”. But even at its most starry-eyed, the American dream struggles to conceal the American reality.
Beneath soaring choruses and radio-friendly melodies are stories of alcoholism, domestic violence and young men sent home from war in boxes. “Daylight’s coming/ Who will it take this time,” she sings on American Teenager. Elsewhere, breezy country rock songs (Thoroughfare, Sun Bleached Flies) are counterbalanced by droning instrumentals (August Underground), harrowing accounts of violence delivered like sermons (Ptolemaea) and seedy Southern rock (Gibson Girl). It’s the difference, Anhedönia puts it, “between a bright, beautiful Sunday morning on the church lawn, versus a dark terrifying evening behind closed doors at home”.
Anhedönia began writing the album in Florida when she was 19, shortly after she left home. It’s a project that’s taken over four years to develop, and there were points – like when she lived in Indiana – where she hardly worked on it at all. It’s a Southern album that needed to be written in the South. A lot of it came together in that bug-infested house on the car lot. “I would lay on the carpet in the light of the street light that was next to the window,” she remembers fondly. “I would just sit there and write songs all night long. I started to piece together the story of this girl, the white dress, the oak trees, the churches… It all just rolled itself out in front of me, and I was like, ‘This is what I have to do. This is the story I have to tell.’”
Set in 1991, Preacher’s Daughter is part one of a transgenerational tale that will unfold across three albums – starting at the end, with Ethel, and working its way back through the family tree. Much like Anhedönia, who grew up in the 2000s but consumed mostly 90s pop culture, Ethel Cain is living out of step. “Down in the South, things are pretty stuck in time,” she explains. “It’s very early-90s inspired but she’s still living in the 80s. So it’s very band-posters-on-the-wall, very cassette-player, very stadium-rock.” As a result, the sound is deliberately bombastic, harnessing the “over the top” quality of the only music outside of hymns and Gregorian chants that she was able to listen to as a kid: Lynyrd Skynyrd, Def Leppard, Drive-By Truckers – all the bands her dad would blast in his truck, and whose CDs now clutter up her own.
“They have that big, classic, all-American feel that you just can’t deny,” Anhedönia grins. “You feel like you’re waving a flag at a NASCAR race, drinking Budweiser, smoking a cigarette. It’s your uncle, your dad, your grandpa, the TV, the radio. They’re these big beautiful anthems, and half the time they’re about love, half the time they’re like, ‘Screw the government!’ It makes you feel like you’re on the road trip of a lifetime, or like you’re gonna go fight some big battle.”
For Anhedönia, whose favourite films are large-scale dramas like Thelma & Louise and “slice of life” stories like American Honey, storytelling is about finding the middle ground between the fantastic and the mundane. “I really wanted to capture that feeling of having a breakdown in the middle of the night and having to get up and go to work the next morning. Like you’re behind the counter at a diner, taking someone’s order, thinking about how your world just ended a couple of hours ago,” she says. “Life just does not stop. You know, you’re scared of god, your family, yourself and the world, and you have to deal with all these fears all at the same time. You’ll have a profound, life-changing experience while you’re getting bread and milk.”
The next album will focus on Ethel Cain’s mother. While religion will remain a core pillar of the story, she thinks it’ll be “less of a topic” for the other characters in the Ethel Cain world – reflecting a change in Anhedönia’s own life, although not intentionally. The narrative was written out years in advance. “It’s funny, I struggled with my religious upbringing for years after I became an adult and right now, at the tail-end of this record, I’ve realised I’ve made peace with everything,” she says. “With my upbringing and spirituality and religion and family and all the ways that those are intertwined. I’m ready to move on.”
For now though, Preacher’s Daughter is a love letter to ordinary sadness and the strength shown to overcome it. It’s a depiction of a timeless South through a modern lens, told through the waking eyes of someone who has broken out of a religious bubble and learned to start over again – each small moment a monumental event as the world reveals itself afresh.
“Things that happen in real life are usually not as big and grand. Something happens and then you get up and go to work the next day. There’s no adventure, there’s no nothing,” Anhedönia says of turning the often silent, internal and unremarkable seeming magic that makes up most people’s lives into a sound bombastic enough to match its transformational power. “Life is so big and beautiful before you, and I wanted something that captured not how the situation actually is, but how it feels to live through it. So yeah,” she adds, resolutely. “This record is my great American epic.”
Preacher’s Daughter is out now via Daughters of Cain