The invention of Ethel Cain
Ethel Cain came to Hayden Silas Anhedönia as a vision: an All-American girl wearing virginal white, the flounces of her gown being tickled by the vast planes of wheat; her hair is long and dark: the kind that is never cut, kept like a covenant; and she is barefoot, the soles of her feet dirty from running down dusty tracks in the thick, Floridian heat.
Even though this vignette lasted only a moment, Cain announced herself as fully-formed: not an apparition or even the faint sketch of an idea, but a living, breathing girl – a girl in whom Anhedönia felt the tremors of her past and the promise of her future. “That’s who I saw her as,” she says, “and she spoke to me in a way that nothing else has ever spoken to me before.”
Ethel Cain coalesced into a single, coherent story as Anhedönia was writing her own. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter was born to a deacon and a choir singer in a Southern Baptist community. Hers was a childhood of piety, where the softness of her early sense of self was cemented by the crucifix that loomed over her as she slept at night, its image branded into the dark behind her eyes like guilt.
Her little world ran to the limits of her conservative hometown along the Florida panhandle, where she was home-schooled her entire life. With her sister, they would dream up stories together, playing in the backyard, running around through the groves with sticks. “I’ve always had a love for the whimsical nature of fiction,” she tells me. “I can’t even tell you the number of stories I’ve written over the course of my life just to find escape.”
At 16, a few years before she would come out as a trans woman, Anhedönia left the Church and began to write her own story – and as the ink bled through the paper, the first, tentative steps toward Ethel Cain were made. Under her first moniker, White Silas, in 2017, she would release smatterings of singles and mixtapes on SoundCloud and Tumblr. These projects were a spectre of the sound she has come to define: ethereal and resonant like the Gregorian chants that echo through the cathedral rafters – yet haunting, trapped in a purgatory somewhere between devotion and despair.
But among these early experimentations, Anhedönia was trying to understand Ethel; learning about the shadows and the light common to both their lives. “Her story has really developed in parallel to mine. I was trying to figure out what the similarities were and where the similarities stopped,” she explains. “For me, she’s more than a musical character. She is the person I could see myself becoming, and she is the person I don’t want to be. She’s very much going down this fork in the road, and I need to go the other way.”
Anhedönia has spent her entire adult life bringing her debut record, Preacher’s Daughter, to life. Written from start to finish “five or six times” over the course of just as many years, it was a reckoning with a past unconfronted and a revelation of Ethel Cain’s story which carried often painful reverberations of her own. Her trilogy of EPs Carpet Bed, Golden Age and Inbred were scenic routes to arriving at Preacher’s Daughter; necessary diversions when the record itself felt too hot to touch. But at last, we meet Ethel Cain, in glorious technicolour.
“She’s a lover who has been left behind and a daughter, still here with her family,” Anhedönia tells me. “She’s very angry, and she feels trapped. She feels scared. She’s a loose cannon wrapped in a bow. She’s very much someone who is hanging on by a thread, who has no option other than to be perfect. She has an image to uphold. She’s a raging fire that’s burning behind a closed door. She’s an American teenager. She’s young. She’s 20-years-old, and she’s terrified of the world. She has so much to prove and so many things she wants to get away from, but ultimately, she just winds up running a full circle right back into them.”
Behind Anhedönia, as she calls from her home in Alabama, is an American flag pinned to her bedroom wall. Everything she does is underpinned by the tenets of American Southern Gothic, found between the covers of Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote. There, the repressed inevitably spills out and overflows, staining the white; where blood, birth and the bayou forge the bondage of who you are, and that’s something you can never outrun.
"I wanted Ethel Cain to be the poster child for what I feel is the casualty of being an All-American girl.”
“When you’re raised in America, you’re raised under this scrutiny of extreme patriotism. There’s this laundry list of unspoken rules that you’re meant to be uphold, and there’s these things you’re expected to go out and chase – and it’s really overwhelming and kind of crushing, because it’s an impossible task,” she says. “I want her very much to be this woman…” she hesitates, before correcting herself: “I want her to be this girl, little girl, who’s trying to be a woman under this catastrophic weight of being the perfect daughter and friend and lover in this crazy country that is just chewing people up and spitting them out. I wanted her to be the poster child for what I feel is the casualty of being an All-American girl.”
Anhedönia announced the arrival of Preacher’s Daughter with a yellowed missing persons poster, her ghost-like face and vacant eyes printed in black and white - a milk carton kid. Underneath, the poster reads: ‘Ethel was last seen Saturday, January 13 at 3:15 A.M being forced into a black, short-bed pickup truck in the old Winn Dixie parking lot on Abrams Street in Arlington, Texas. A witness said a white man kidnapped her.”
Across thirteen tracks, she unravels a story of love and poison, and how hard it is to tell the difference (“I watched him show his love through shades of black and blue”, she sings on “Western Nights”). Anhedönia writes of starved out neighbourhoods, finding god with her lover on a dirty mattress in “A House in Nebraska” on the edge of town, robbing gas stations and crying in the light of TV static. The lyrics, alone, warrant hours of dissection, which you can turn inside out for answers to Ethel Cain’s fate, each song interwoven with each other. “Slowly, but surely, the story revealed itself,” she recalls. “It caught me by surprise. Honestly, I didn’t ever sit down with the intentions of writing this story.”
More than a musician – more than anything – Anhedönia identifies as a storyteller. The story of Ethel Cain is far from over: since its genesis, she has nurtured the ambition of writing it into a novel and, eventually, a screenplay which she will ultimately direct. “I spend so much time thinking about this story, and this character, and this world, and the lessons behind it,” she tells me. “I want it to be completely immersive. So, you know, come hell or high water, I’ll make it happen.”
I ask Anhedönia where Ethel’s story ends and her own begins. “You know in crime shows when they always say something like, ‘Names and places have been changed to protect the identity of those involved’? I never really felt comfortable writing songs about real people and real things that happened. Everything that happened to her is something that has happened to me, but I’ve kind of twisted it.”
But their greatest commonality, she says, is their love for their families. Anhedönia is affectionately named ‘Mother’ by her fans, and her own fascination with maternal figures is the opening theme of the album on “Family Tree”: “Jesus can always reject his father / But he cannot escape his mother’s blood.” At its core, she feels that family is what the record is truly about. “Family is the closest thing to her, but she wants it to be the furthest thing from her, but you know you can never really escape that,” she says.
While she assures me that her relationship with her family is now a happy one, after having withdrawn from their religion and pursued her life as a trans woman, for many years, this was far from the case: “When I moved out, there was an immediate explosion of anger and uncertainty that came with processing what happened to me as a kid, and what was currently happening to me as an adult. It was just a never-ending stream. I was pretty angry for a long time, and so I translated that into her. There was also the fear of being vulnerable, and what it would be like to let your guard down, and this cycle super, explosively angry and then super depressed and run ragged. Over and over.” The image that lingers with you after “Family Tree” is this: “The fates already fucked me sideways / Swinging by my neck from the family tree / He’ll laugh and say you know I raised you better than this / Then leave me hanging so they all can laugh at me.”
But Ethel Cain is more than the face of love’s rage. Preacher’s Daughter is also an ode to the mythic South, bleached by the suns of Florida, Indiana and Alabama. “When I first moved out, I didn’t want anything to do with the South. I didn’t want anything to do with the country. I had a bitterness toward my upbringing, and so I rejected it,” she says. “But this project was like a homecoming for me. It was returning to my roots, falling back in love with where I grew up from a less helpless standpoint of being more in control of the environment, so I could love it without being at its mercy.”
She learned to fall in love with running through the fields, playing down at the creek and in the swamps; hanging out at her uncle’s house and watching the NASCAR races with him while he smoked his Marlboro Reds and playing in the streets before sunset. It was these classic American images that she wanted to evoke in her writing, drawing the same feeling in a listener that she had reading Flannery O’Connor. “I saw the beauty in everything: the way the sunset looks through the leaves of the oak trees, the way the air smells in the summer in Florida… I saw it all in a new light.”
As a child, Anhedönia adored her mother, and still does. Her love of music, she feels, derived from her. She was a choir singer, and the rooms of their house would be filled with hymns and Gregorian chants. Such emotional music stirred something within Anhedönia, and she would join the choir as soon as she was able to stand up and sing on her own. “Music never even felt like a decision,” she tells me. “It’s funny, because the one thing that never really failed me growing up during my rejection of the church was the music. Even though everything else was so awful, the music was always there. It still resonated with me.” She still has a cache of CDs from her childhood that she often plays. There is a joke among Anhedönia’s friends that Ethel Cain’s music is just secular worship. “It’s almost the same formula of music you would worship to on a Sunday morning,” she says – it’s just that Anhedönia finds God in other places.
“I wouldn’t describe myself as a Christian,” Anhedönia contemplates. “But I would say I’m very spiritual now. I have a lot of moments where I like to stop and feel the pull of something greater than myself, and I have zero words to explain it. I’d like to think that my stories and my music is just me trying to explain that magic I feel in the air every so often, when you feel something a little bit more than you usually do. I don’t know if that’s Jesus. I don’t know if that’s someone else’s God. I don’t know what it is – I don’t know if it’s God at all, or if it’s just a particularly nice breeze on a Sunday afternoon. But whatever it is, it feels special.”
She pauses, before adding: “I realised that I didn’t want to spend my whole life running. Now, I’m in control of it, instead of it being in control of me. I’m not scared anymore, which is very important to me, because I spent a lot of my life feeling very afraid.” Her thoughts call to mind a lyric in the track “Ptolemaea”, a tortured depiction of a place in hell designated for traitors against guests in their home. Among the thrashing guitars, she declares: “I am no good nor evil, simply I am”.
"I was very much carving out a space for both myself and Ethel Cain as an ideal woman. I was building her through a soundscape which I was coming into myself.”
As a trans woman, Anhedönia comes from a tradition of artists who have carved their identities through their music. “We construct ideal versions of ourselves through our music, and then from there, we work our way towards it,” she says. “You can really see artists plotting out the blueprint for the person that they would like to be. It’s a fascinating way of expression through art.” When she started making music, unlike 100 gecs’ Laura Les and SOPHIE, rather than pitching her voice upwards as an articulation of femininity, Anhedönia was pitching hers down. “One of my favourite aspects of womanhood are those who are very matronly, with deep voices who are very comforting and powerful. When I watched an older movie about a boarding school, I was never looking at the little girls in the pretty white dresses – I was looking at this freaky headmistress with her hair in a bun, with this big booming voice that everyone was afraid of. I was like, ‘Oh my god, what a woman.’”
She wanted to embody a sultry, lazy, almost effortless femininity, that she likens to a cat lounging on a piano. “I was carving out my feminine identity through that and discovering it through my music,” Anhedönia tells me. “I was using the guitars to translate the grittier side of femininity – that raw, almost feral side of womanhood – and then I was using the ethereal vocals to translate the smooth, effortless air about femininity, and then the deeper vocals I was pitching down to convey that commanding, matronly tone. So I was very much carving out a space for both myself and Ethel Cain as an ideal woman. I was building her through a soundscape which I was coming into myself.”
Through Preacher’s Daughter, she hopes that she can offer a different kind of narrative to the spectrum of trans experience. “I never really saw a lot of conversations from trans women about the way I wanted to live my life,” she shares. “Everybody’s always been told that if you’re LGBT of some kind, you reject your small town, you move to a big city and completely change your whole life and live somewhere big, beautiful and vibrant. I love that for other people, but for me, I never really wanted to leave home, you know? I was always told that was what you had to do, so I tried to do it for a year – I moved an hour away from home, and it was too much. I wanted to be home. I love my family. I love the way I grew up. I love running around in mud puddles and being a little country tomboy. I never saw any trans narratives like that. I want to offer other options to trans girls and women who don’t really want to change too much – they just want to continue living the life they always have. I’m excited to see them living more truthfully to themselves, telling their stories about the world as it appears to them.”
This morning, before our conversation, Anhedönia wrote the first song for the album beyond Preacher’s Daughter. “I thought it was going to be this big, crazy depression, like some postpartum shit giving birth to this record because it’s been gestating for four years, but now I’m onto the next one. I’m like a shark,” she laughs, “I can’t stop moving. But, you know, this project is nowhere near over. I’m just done with the first chapter.”
When I ask her how she chooses to define success, she shrugs, “Oh, it’s not that hard to define at all, because I think about it all the time. Success, for me, is when I’ve made enough money to buy a plot of land somewhere near where I grew up. I want to build my dream house exactly how I want it. My whole end goal is to make enough money to have the creative freedom to make my projects, my little whimsies. I’ll be 85-years-old, sitting on my front porch in a rocking chair, looking back and thinking, ‘That was a good album. That was a good film. I wrote a bunch of books, I did everything I wanted to do, and now I have my family in this beautiful house that I built and I get to die in.’”
She isn’t interested in the promised land of California, or ridiculous, transient things like numbers or fame. She’s interested in a book she just bought called The Architecture of Country Houses. She begins to describe to me the house of her dreams: a 1940s style farmhouse, the kind with the wood slats on the inside and the outside. Wallpaper in the living room. Cream-coloured carpet. Full, wraparound porch and a little turret as a reading nook at the top of the house (“That’s my fancy add-on,” she smiles”).
“I want to have a room for my child, I want to have one kid,” she says. “I want to have a nice, big bedroom upstairs with huge windows with lace curtains in every room. I want to have a little kitchen with a bay window, big enough for me to cook in. I want to have a couple of spare bedrooms for all my friends when they come to visit, because I’m very, very close with all my friends. I love to host. I’d have a nice yard with some live oak trees in it that I can walk around, barefoot, and just enjoy the nice sunset – you know, southern afternoon in the summer. I’ll have it someday,” she promises. “I’ve been hellbent on it for years, and I’m probably going to be hellbent on it for a lot more years to come. I’ll have every album release party there, and we’ll all have a big dinner outside. It’s going to be great. I’m going to build it myself, from scratch, and it’s going to be perfect.”