Ethel Cain, Raised In A Bubble, Stays Isolated For Her Art
By Danielle Chelosky
Listening to Ethel Cain’s songs can feel imminent and intense, like being struck with a revelation or watching a massive hurricane roll in. There’s a sense that nothing will be the same afterward. Hayden Silas Anhedönia — the eccentric artist who brings a country twang and a sharp, emo-rap edge to the indie-pop project — has a knack for stretching ephemeral moments of awe into large sensory experiences. She takes that to the next level with Preacher’s Daughter, which despite being her debut full-length, can’t be described as anything but her opus. Over an hour long, it is as cinematic and visceral as a horror film. The album focuses on a teenage runaway, an idea Anhedönia compares to Thelma & Louise because it has an “all-American tale vibe with some fables and proverbs along the way,” she says over Zoom about a month before the release.
Anhedönia’s art is a complicated reckoning. The 24-year-old grew up in a religious family in Florida. Her dad was a deacon, and she and her siblings were homeschooled. She came out as gay at age 12, left to live on her own after turning 18, and began to accept her identity as a transgender woman around 20. The music she began making during this period of self-discovery turned her alienation into power. Wicca Phase Springs Eternal — the emo-rap project of Adam McIlwee, who founded the music collective Goth Boi Clique that nurtured Lil Tracy and the late icon Lil Peep — stumbled upon her work and was immediately pulled in.
“I saw Ethel’s name on a Nicole Dollangager flyer in 2019 and decided to listen to her music, probably because I thought she had a good name,” McIlwee shares via email. “I couldn’t believe how mature of an artist she seemed at such an early stage in her career — her voice and lyrics were already very good, and her branding and aesthetic already seemed to be fully formed, which is so rare for an artist with only a handful of songs.”
He introduced her to fellow emo-rap prodigy Lil Aaron, who runs the label Hazheart Records, and he helped her out with releasing the music to a new audience. Since then, she has released two EPs, 2019’s Golden Age and last year’s Inbred. Reverberating, spectral sounds and poetic lyricism imbued the collections with hypnotic atmospheres. Both featured two collaborators: Inbred invited Wicca Phase onto the sprawling eight-minute track “God’s Country” and Lil Aaron on the coruscating ballad “Michelle Pfeiffer.” After being laid off from her job at a nail salon due to financial hardships caused by the pandemic, Anhedönia signed a record deal in August 2020 with Prescription Songs.
In the midst of all this, Anhedönia was building Preacher’s Daughter, which features no one but herself. “I started working on it when I was like 19,” she says. “It seems like forever ago, but I would just kind of work on it here and there.” It’s set in 1991, when “my mom was the same age that I am now,” she explains. “I really wanted to explore ’90s nostalgia with her and work my way back up through the decades for the future albums as we go back up the family tree.” This album is a part of a trilogy that follows three generations of women, but chronologically it’s not the first — it’s the last, centering on the youngest of the bunch. “I’ve always had a love for the ’90s even though I was barely present for it. All the TVs in my house are old box TVs. I only watch VHS tapes and some DVDs. I think I’m just permanently stuck in the past because childhood is, you know, the purest time of your life.”
“I remember being a kid and being very sheltered, very Christian, very closed off to the outside world. I remember I would go to my grandparents’ house and see a crime show on TV or I would see a scandalous movie poster on the side of the Movie Gallery,” she says. “We would drive through downtown and I remember those little glimpses into the real world through this very sheltered bubble that I was in. They were life-changing.” The Ethel Cain character is reclusive. Though she uses social media, her posts are cryptic and brief, never giving too much of herself away. She refuses to move to a city, or really anywhere beyond the rural South; as we Zoom, she sits in her Alabama home, which she describes as “completely isolated.” But she still fantasizes about disappearing even more: “I really look forward to building a house somewhere out in the middle of nowhere, and I might not even put Wi-Fi in it,” she contemplates aloud.
This elusiveness heightens the impact of her music, lending the songs the texture of a prophecy. It brings to mind the resonance of Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 masterwork In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, which was increasingly cult-followed and adored as bandleader Jeff Mangum, who’s also a masterful storyteller, went into hiding afterward. She is unafraid to carve out space in music for herself and go all in with what she creates. It isn’t the kind of music that’s easy to forget. It lingers and haunts like a ghost. The sound is often brooding and hallucinogenic; sometimes it’s flat-out scary, with bone-chilling instrumentals that sound like floating through the ether untethered, until Anhedönia’s shimmering vocals come back in as a guiding force. Other times, like in “Sun Bleached Flies” or “American Teenager,” a blinding brightness soars through the songs among celebratory synths and bouncy rhythms. Epiphanies flicker within vivid scenes and unbridled emotions regardless of the sonic palette.
In grappling with her Southern upbringing, she doesn’t hesitate to dig into the lows. Drugs, violence, and death animate her lyrics, though not without criticism. “I’ve been accused of being a white nationalist, racist, Republican, right-winger, redneck, the whole slew of it,” she says. But she knows her vision is on the right track. “You have a lot of backward-thinking, ignorant people in the South, that’s very true,” she admits. “But you also have some of the most diverse cultures that never get any spotlight. I’m not trying to glorify the racist, violent aspects of the South that it’s known for. I want to tell the tales of people who are suffering from that, because there are a lot of people here who don’t agree with that and don’t believe in that and you never really hear about them.” She aims to dive into the “dark side of patriotism,” and the power that the American dream holds over people despite the fact that it will likely “do nothing but get you killed, leave a hole in your family, and put money in [the government’s] pocket,” she says.
But the misunderstanding and misconstruing of her art are inevitable, only contributing to her drive to get further off the grid. She’s continuing to grow, cultivating a devoted fanbase — or, more accurately speaking, stanbase — on Twitter. She is on the aforementioned Prescription Songs, the major label founded by disgraced producer Dr. Luke, about which she has said: “I am completely oblivious to most things in the industry […] All I can say is I stay in my bubble and do my work.” Sacrifice was necessary to bring Preacher’s Daughter to life, though, judging by the music, it’s surprising that it wasn’t something more intense and ritualistic like human sacrifice. But it has all been paying off.
“Everything has its pros and cons,” she expounds. “I’m very neurotic about my vision. I really want it to be as close to what I see in my head as possible. Otherwise, you know, why bother trying? I’m gonna go for what my original vision was, and a lot of times that requires a lot of money. And the only way to make a lot of money as an artist is to become successful. So I just bit that bullet and was like, it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be stressful. But it’s all for the art.”