Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Ethel Cain 2022 03 press shot credit Helen Kirbo

The Artist and The Ghost

05 December 2022, 08:30

The architect behind Best Fit's Album of the Year Preacher's Daughter tells Sophie Walker about the next steps for her alter-ego Ethel Cain.

Hayden Silas Anhedönia left her home in Alabama behind, and with it, the most transformative year of her life.

She watched the sprawling southern planes disappear in the rear-view mirror as the whirling piano of “Televangelism”, the death knell of her debut album Preacher’s Daughter, lingered in the air before bleeding into static, the keys starting to warp end loomed. For the first time, she allowed herself to cry. “This year has so busy, I hadn’t had a chance to,” she says. “But this was my first breakdown about it all. I did it. I finished Preacher’s Daughter after four years, after all this time."

It was within those wood-panelled walls that Anhedönia settled Ethel Cain’s first chapter. She moved there an unknown artist struggling to make ends meet with almost nothing to her name beside a story that demanded to be told. “I will never forget that day, a month before my twentieth birthday, when I bought a white dress for the first time and put it on in the mirror,” she reflects. An image burnt sharply in her mind: “I could see a vision of this woman with long brown hair and a white dress, standing in front of an old house and a wheat field somewhere in the middle of the country. It was the strangest experience. I feel like Ethel Cain is a ghost nobody can see but me, and if I don’t tell her story, she’ll cease to exist. I know it sounds absolutely insane and nutty, but I’m so filled with this vigour and drive to tell it to the fullest extent.”

Weeks later, she put on the dress again and sat down on the thick pile carpet, the white linen pooling around her legs that had been passed down like an heirloom. She dusted off a neglected piano loop in a folder on her laptop and started to write the beginning of it all, “House in Nebraska”. She became consumed with the story of the girl with the pale, cold face printed on the milk cartons in Winn-Dixie, and in Preacher’s Daughter, unveiled it in thirteen vignettes where the swell of a piano key, the pulse of percussion, could communicate more than a thousand words. Channelling the events of her own life and distorting them through the lens of Ethel Cain’s, she reckoned with the chokehold of the Southern Baptist Church, rotten family roots, bad men and predestined doom. “God loves you, but not enough to save you,” is the final blow dealt in this Southern Gothic masterpiece.

Helplessly, we were all drawn into Cain’s world of dirt tracks in the thick, Floridian heat; of Gregorian chants that fill the church rafters; finding God with her lover on a dirty mattress and the smell of her grandfather’s Marlboro Reds – a particular kind of Americana of a bygone era in sharp relief.

Ethel cain press 2

Once an underground, largely anonymous artist who lurked in the shadows of SoundCloud, now, Anhedönia has become one of the most widely discussed cultural figures of 2022. Her story has been told, and re-told, by every publication with a stake in the game; her work has been as carefully dissected as it was assembled and met with rapturous applause as a record that pushes the parameters of what music can accomplish. Once a fan at the barrier – forehead to forehead with her hero Florence Welch – she shares now a stage and a friendship with her. Ethel Cain is so instantly recognisable that she has become a Halloween costume, with people emulating her tattoos and flouncing around in prairie dresses, exorcising her spirit. But there has been something for Anhedönia, too, having been asked to model for the likes of Miu Miu, Eckhaus Latta and Givenchy, drawn to her irreplicable image.

After the arrival of her firstborn, and the life-altering changes that accompanied it, it felt right that she should move on. She has lived in a new place every year, in fact, since she left her parents’ home at eighteen years old. “Whenever a project was over, I always felt like I’d squeezed all the life out of that house,” she tells me. “I get very restless. It’s hard for me to stay too long in one place, because it’s like, ‘Now I know everything, I know all the secrets.’”

She discovered, recently, that her Alabama home was owned by a 90-year-old woman whose name is Pearly May – a fact which fits Anhedönia’s world like a glove. “I’ll always miss Pearly May’s house,” she says. “I moved there a relatively unheard-of artist, and in right there in that bedroom, I created the thing that brought all these good things my way. It was very much a turning point in my life as an adult and as an artist. The world opened up to me while I lived there. It was a beautiful house: very charming in the day, very scary at night.” Of course, like many of her homes turned out to be, Pearly May’s house was haunted: Anhedönia would see spectres in its hallways and hear disembodied footsteps. But she brushes all that aside and tells me something far scarier. “A couple of weeks ago, right before we moved out, my sister and I were watching movies, and someone broke into the house in the middle of night and stood outside our door. It was very frightening being women, alone in the dark in a house out in the middle of nowhere.” Something which she is all too familiar with is that it’s in our reality that the real horror lies.

She spent the morning and night before our conversation decorating her new attic bedroom. Taped to her wall is her poster of Thelma & Louise and with that, the American Flag. Over the stairway, a framed picture of Christ. There is a deck connected to her window from where she can see the Pittsburgh skyline, and there is a thick carpet, which she can’t do without. After she is finished with the European leg of her Freezer Bride tour, there, she intends to stay. “I’m just gonna disappear into my bedroom for three or four months and get back to work,” she says.

But the hard part, Anhedönia feels, is done. “The past four years have been really difficult, because when you’re a new artist, you just want the world to know what you know about yourself,” she explains to me. “I was impatient for when I was going to be recognised as an artist and not just some girl making music in her bedroom. You need that validation, and it’s a rite of passage. Once Halloween rolled around, and people were writing my tattoos on their forehead and making memes about being Amish and churning butter, all these things that were related to Ethel Cain, I realised that I made something recognisable that meant something to people. I was just like, ‘I finally made a piece of art that people recognise as my own’. I’m very proud of Preacher’s Daughter, and you know, it’s not perfect by any means, but I think I did a damn good job of doing it almost entirely on my own. I put it out, and people loved it, and now I’m ready to do it again – a million times. I’m moving away from that need for validation, and toward an acceptance of my own craft.”

Preachers daugher album cover

Her designs for Ethel Cain’s story can’t be contained to music alone. Her ambition always expanded far beyond that, with an intention to not only write a series of novels but direct and star in an accompanying movie. She started on a shoestring, but now, with every passing project, she feels that she has the resources to execute her vision to the fullest: “The feeling that I get from drawing this story out into the world in a tangible form such as music, literature or film – it’s a feeling I can’t even describe that I hope everyone in gets to feel at least once in their lives, because it’s what keeps me going. Even though it’s so taxing on my body, soul and spirit, it’s so rewarding that I feel that it’s worth it to be consumed.”

The lore surrounding Ethel Cain rewards a patient listener. Part of the thrill ofPreacher’s Daughter its subversive method of storytelling: the way that a particular sound is as transportive as prose. But despite many of its songs stretching towards an indulgent ten minutes to evoke the story’s subtleties, there was too much that Anhedönia felt unsaid. “I’ve actually had to stop reading interpretations because they make me so crazy,” she laughs. “I’ve had to learn to ignore whenever they get the lot wrong. I’m like, ‘Let me put the book out, and then you’ll understand what’s gone on.'"

Her first novel will expand on Cain’s world, and she is our narrator. It begins while she’s in high school: “She’s this formal, very nerdy little girl who has this disturbing mean streak,” Anhedönia explains. “But she’s very proper, raised to be very well-spoken and educated by her mother and grandmother. A good girl. But then she has this interest in the darker things of the world, and she starts getting into trouble when no one is looking. She becomes a rebel but does it in a way that’s very guarded because she has it drilled into her from a young age that she has a reputation to uphold. She’s observant, doesn’t really have a lot of friends… a lonely, kooky little girl growing up in the world. I was very much that way when I was a child.”

The book delves into Ethel’s story, but she is merely the conduit for a larger anthology about intergenerational trauma that made her fate inevitable: a young woman hunted, drugged and cannibalised – a ‘freezer bride’.

“Who’s in the story most is the grandmother,” she says. “It’s a cautionary tale. It’s the story of this woman who experiences something and the way it affects her life, and the way that her actions, in retaliation, affect the rest of her family’s lives for the next fifty years. When I talk about Ethel Cain, the old woman with the hair pulled back in the white dress and the freaky-deaky old-timey American – that’s the grandmother, the matriarch of this whole story. She’s where it started and where it ends. But I’m excited to eventually get to her, because that’s the horror story: that’s where things get the darkest and the series of events are revealed that lead to Ethel Cain, her granddaughter, dying in some basement.”

Ethel cain press 4

The book is still in its infancy as Anhedönia has been meeting the demands of touring, but the foundations are laid, scribbled down in the back of the van. “It’s a much more freeing medium to work with,” she says. “It has been really nice getting to know these characters: I can describe their hair colour, their weird little nervous tics and how they behave when no one else is watching. Obviously, I consider myself a storyteller more than anything, so to finally be able to tell it, unhindered and unfettered, is just like Christmas for me.”

The telling of this story has helped her to reach conclusions about her own family and the intricacies of human nature. “When you’re young, you so badly need a villain. You need a bad guy to explain why you do what you do, and why you are the way that you are. But I realise, now, that the people who you think are at fault are often a lot less at fault than you think they are. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I went through a lot of stuff as a kid, and I wouldn’t want to diminish my own trauma or the trauma of others, but I’ve had candid conversations with my mother asking her why she did the things that she did. And she said, ‘I thought I was doing what was best’. You know, I grew up in a very religious household and the way some things were handled regarding me as a child were done at the insistence of church elders. So it’s less my mom and more the Southern Baptist institution, which I’m sure is a bad guy for everybody. But when I heard more stories about how my mom grew up, I was like, ‘You’re a real person who was once my age who went through things that changed you and made you bitter and angry. You mess up just like I mess up.’ We have a larger capacity to be bad than we think we do, and people have more capacity to be good than we allow them to be. They’re not going to have an excuse, but most of the time, they have a reason.”

"Fan culture has ramped up in a very weird way... it’s a weird time to be doing anything, so I want no part in it. I’m just a girl living in a little house making little stories. Ethel’s very larger than life, but that’s her, not me.”

(E.C.)

Her next two records will form a trilogy: Preacher’s Daughter, Preacher’s Wife and Mother of a Preacher. “When I started this first record, it was all about poor, helpless Ethel who was going to get revenge on everyone – specifically the preacher, her father, for being a bad man.” Yet he remains a spectral figure, hardly even an antagonist in the story; just another piece of a puzzle in the story of three women.

Beyond that, however, Anhedönia is also interested in addressing the way men and women interact, the way that they hurt each other. “You never think about men’s transition from boyhood to manhood, which is very rigorous – very violent,” she says. Ethel Cain’s murderer, Isiah, is a character she has taken particular interest in developing. “Even though he’s the big bad wolf of Preacher’s Daughter who literally kills Ethel, even with his story, you feel bad because he’s a product of his environment. So even the male characters in this story, they have a life and they had things happen to them that distorted them as they went from being boys to men. There really are not villains – not even the men. Everyone is a deeply flawed, complex person, just like we are in real life.”

But before her second record, Preacher’s Wife, which Anhedönia envisions will take a few years to execute, we can expect a new EP on the horizon. Connected still to the Preacher’s Daughter branch of the story, it serves as a prequel: teenage Ethel falling in love with Willoughby, the man who “House in Nebraska” was written about. It begins with her meeting him and unfolds the events of their relationship before he skips town. The book, she tells me, opens with the events of this EP. “It’s been really sad working on it, you know, writing about a sixteen-year-old girl who has fallen in love with a boy knowing what’s down the line.”

Of the sound, she details: “It’s still very slowcore, because it’s still technically tied to Preacher’s Daughter, but it has a Christian rock edge because it takes place in the late eighties. When I was her age, pining over love and whatnot, I was listening to The Fray and Switchfoot, all of these things. But there’s always going to be a dream pop element, because that’s the core foundation of all my music. It’s gonna be really pretty and really sad; an honest look at the part of her life where she experiences gut-wrenching first love.”

With the turbulence of 2022, Anhedönia has struggled to find a moment to come to terms with the ways in which her life has changed so far, let alone making headway with new projects. She has been pulled in a thousand directions, with modelling being perhaps the most unexpected – yet, for all the world, obvious – consequence of her success. “I’ve never been much of a fashionista,” she says, even the word itself sitting uncomfortably in her mouth. “I didn’t even know a lot of these brands until literally this year. I mean, to tell the truth, I was flat-out broke until a year or two ago. I was wearing jeans that I found on the floor of an abandoned house in Florida, shopping at Goodwill and spending all my rent on old lady dresses to try and get a visual brand for Ethel Cain going. But in my daily life, I was wearing hand-me-downs.”

It’s not herself who is the fashionable one, she stresses – it’s Ethel. Yet the irony lies in the fact that her aesthetic is the antithesis of that world. “The real, honest truth is Ethel Cain is anti-fashion,” she explains. “It’s completely against the nature of the story because these are poor, blue-collar working women, all three of them. If they have anything nice to show for it, it’s because they made it themselves. There’s really no place for high-fashion in the Ethel Cain universe, but it has been fun to do these things on the side just as me, Hayden.”

The separation between Hayden and Ethel is a line she is increasingly struggling to draw. Her fans are legion, proclaiming her their “mother” with befitting, cult-like devotion. “At first, it was very jarring. I didn’t like it at all,” she tells me. “I definitely don’t want to be seen as anything larger than life. But then you get this elevated sense of identity that other people put onto you – which is not their fault, everybody does it with an artist they love. The truth is, we’re all just silly people making stuff. Something I started to realise, though, is that the way people look up to Ethel Cain is the way I look up to her myself. I understand the difference between when people are talking to me or talking to Ethel.” She goes on to say, “Fan culture has ramped up in a very weird way because of the internet. Celebrity is dead, there are no icons or rock stars anymore – it’s just famous people. It’s a weird time to be doing anything, so I want no part in it. I’m just a girl living in a little house making little stories. Ethel’s very larger than life, but that’s her, not me.”

But by being on tour, for the first time she has had the opportunity to forge genuine connections with her audience. She has been gifted everything from Calico Critters to human teeth, which sit in an antique trinket box on her nightstand. There are anywhere between thirty and fifty teeth in there, she tells me, which have been presented as offerings. Anhedönia has also been given a doll customised in Ethel’s image on the album cover, complete with miniature replications of her tattoos – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, a few voodoo dolls.

Ethel Cain 001 press shot credit Ethel Cain

One of her most unusual gifts, however, is a bag of dirt from Waco, Texas. “I guess it’s a bit of a deep cut right now, but one of the demos I put on Tumblr a while ago which is going to be on the EP coming out soon is called ‘Waco, Texas’. It’s a twenty-minute song, and one of the deeper fans brought me a baggie of dirt taken from there.” The significance of the location lies with a cult called the Branch Davidian responsible for the ‘Waco siege’ which resulted in a standoff with the police and military that lasted for days. The ranch was eventually engulfed in flames, killing seventy-six of the Branch Davidians. It is a story that has always haunted her, and the gift was deeply considered. It’s easy to spot an Ethel Cain fan. There are two distinct factions: the ones in ethereal Gunne Sax dresses or, in the Hayden tradition, camo overalls and jean jackets. They know her taste well: “I think I was on a stage in New York when one person handed me a rosary, and another gave me a pack of Marlboro Reds. It was just so fitting. They know what I love.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Anhedönia was a fan in the front row herself. In October 2018, she drove from Tallahassee to Charlotte, North Carolina and waited outside the stadium for Florence + The Machine for 27 hours. “She came up to me and held my face,” she recalls, the picture having done the rounds on Twitter. “I gave her the rosary from around my neck and she sang to me. After that night, I was like, ‘I’m gonna work with her someday, I’m going to be with her creatively, somehow.’ I willed it into existence." Four years later, almost to the day, they shared a stage together and performed a duet of “Morning Elvis”. She smiles ,“The stars aligned and put me where I needed to be.”

Her praise for Florence Welch as an artist could consume an entire article in itself, but speaking as a fan, she tells me, “She’s very pretty and smells very good, I will let you know that. She smells like a deity, like sage, incense and the most expensive powders imaginable. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m obsessed with her! She’s too cool.’”

Ethel cain press 3

Being treated as an equal by her idol is proof, to Anhedönia, that she is on the right path. But throughout all these breakthrough moments, she has barely taken stock of the ways she is changing. She finds herself at a crossroads. “My whole life has been being from a poor, working family. I had no money, and I struggled as an artist. A lot of who I am is centred around the fact that I was fighting a steep, uphill battle. But now I’m the most comfortable I have ever been. I’m by no means rich,” she is quick to stress, “but I don’t have to struggle as hard. I can pay my rent with ease and buy some instruments for my studio – just have some nice things, sometimes. It’s been weird grappling with this guilt. It’s been interesting coming to terms with that: do I even have the right to make the art I’m making anymore that is about struggle, hurt and trauma now I’ve made a better life for myself? I can’t really tell you about everything I feel right now, I’m trying to figure out this new person I’m becoming, but I’m working harder than I ever have to make something worthwhile.”

For now, she is excited to simply be home for three, uninterrupted months to create with abandon. “My life has changed a lot this year in ways that I’m so appreciative for, but I won’t say have been fulfilling,” she ventures. “And I don’t want to say that at the risk of sounding ungrateful – because I am so grateful for everything I have gotten this year – but I have gone to high-fashion after parties, I’ve done photoshoots for big magazines and done huge things that haven’t even come out yet, all signifiers that my career is moving into a new stage, but it’s very surface level. I thought this was going to be the moment when I would think I’ve made it, that I’m a real artist, but what tells me I’m a real artist isn’t any of those things. It’s the fact that I made something, committed to it and finished it. I can listen to it now and be like, ‘I did it. I made something that is wholly me and exactly what I wanted it.’ And now I get the honour of doing it all over again.”

Preacher's Daughter is Best Fit's Album of the Year; Ethel Cain plays her debut UK show tomorrow (6 December) at Omeara in London

Share article
Email

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next
News
Listen
Reviews