By Brodie Lancaster
Exploring the mythical and the mundane: Ethel Cain, pictured at Coachella last month.
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Hayden Silas Anhedönia is preparing to not be known. A year after the release of Preacher’s Daughter, her breakout record as Ethel Cain, the 25-year-old artist is already plotting a future where she can exist entirely behind the scenes.
“I feel like Preacher’s Daughter was my Trojan horse, in a way. I’m excited to pull back, be behind the camera instead of in front of it, be behind my computer screen, be behind the microphone in my studio – instead of out there,” she says.
It’s a rare admission from an artist so freshly in the spotlight, one who’s just performed at Coachella, was named one of Barack Obama’s favourite artists of 2022 and has appeared in a Givenchy fashion campaign and Miu Miu runway show.
But self-preservation is both the secret to success and goal for Anhedönia. She’s seen what fame and attention can do and came into both with an exit strategy in mind.
“I am very excited to be at a point where I can put out these big bodies of work that I’m proud of, without feeling like I have to put myself out, too. Every artist has to earn that. So I’m biding my time and having fun in the meantime.”
Before she achieves her goal of disappearing, she first needs an introduction.
Anhedönia grew up in the town of Perry in northern Florida, the daughter of a First Baptist deacon and a born-again mother who brought her along to choir practice and sent her to Vacation Bible School on summer holidays. Being a child interested in art and pursuing a creative life wasn’t simple, nor was her life in Perry after coming out as gay to her family at age 12 and then as a trans woman at age 20 (she now identifies as bisexual). She was baptised three times before leaving the church at age 16.
On Tumblr in 2020, Anhedönia wrote that while she no longer considers herself a Christian, “I still abide by the values I was raised on (love your neighbour, treat everyone with respect, be kind and gracious always).
“It’s embedded in my history and will always be a part of my art,” she wrote, “but mainly just ’cause I love horror and drama and what’s more horrifying and dramatic than devoting your life to God?”
Ethel Cain will perform at Vivid Sydney, Rising Melbourne and Dark Mofo in Hobart in June.Credit: Matthew Tomasi
The Ethel Cain project is the perfect union of her past and future, and the horrors of her fictional little life are etched deep in Anhedönia’s consciousness.
Less a stage name or gimmicky moniker, Ethel is a character Anhedönia has invented and inhabits. She both makes music as Ethel Cain and about her. It’s like if Stephen King assumed the character of Jack Torrance while writing The Shining, and then set it to expansive electronic synths.
Anhedönia was releasing music steadily for a few years before Ethel Cain came to her, a fully formed vision in a long white dress. A kind of mashup of Little House on the Prairie’s dustbowl scenery with Picnic at Hanging Rock’s haunting spiritual subtext, Ethel became Anhedönia’s obsession and singular focus.
“I’ve always been into things that are very religious. I’ve always been into things that are horror, and kind of fantastical and mythical,” she says over Zoom.
A few days after performing her second and final set at Coachella, Anhedönia, who normally lives in Alabama, is catching her breath in Los Angeles. She’s in the off-duty uniform of a roomy grey marle jumper, her wispy brunette fringe covering the names of an archangel and demon, tattooed in Hebrew across her hairline. She’s open and cheeky, taking her work seriously but rarely herself.
Soon, she’ll head off for her first – and entirely sold out – tour of Australia. She’ll bring the Ethel Cain live show to the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid and Brisbane’s QPAC, as well as the fittingly spooky Dark Mofo in Tasmania and Roman-Gothic Forum Melbourne, as part of Rising festival.
“Ethel was the first project that combined all of those elements [I’ve always been drawn to]. The mythical and the mundane. Horror. Religion. Nostalgia. All of the things I’ve had a penchant for. That was the first project that I felt was worth putting time and energy and money and labour and blood, sweat and tears into.”
“I love horror and drama and what’s more horrifying and dramatic than devoting your life to God?”Credit: Helen Kirbo
Ethel is the titular daughter of a late minister in a small town in Alabama where neighbourhood boys enlist in the military and return home in flag-covered coffins. Over Preacher’s Daughter‘s 13 tracks, a Southern Gothic narrative spills out like a spiderweb. Ethel goes from being a girl “too young to noticе / That some types of love could bе bad” to a victim of romantic relationships that echo the worst ones of her childhood.
By the end of the record, Ethel has run away from home and fallen in love with a man who becomes a new kind of religion to her. After being kidnapped, drugged and murdered, Ethel sings her final song to her mother, as her cannibal boyfriend feasts on her body “like smoked bovine hide”.
As with so many songs that sample the imagery and lore of Americana to make a point about America, some of Anhedönia’s have been misinterpreted as emblems of nationalism. Some listeners of the track American Teenager, she told iD magazine, expressed a desire “to grab a Bible and go to church, buy a gun and praise the American flag”. It’s a response mirroring that of Springsteen fans naive enough to assume Born in the USA was little more than an uplifting anthem.
“Did not have a former president including my anti-war, anti-patriotism fake pop song on his end of year list on my 2022 bingo [card],” Anhedönia tweeted, after Barack Obama named American Teenager among his recent favourites.
But misreadings come with the territory. After labouring over the intricacies of Ethel Cain’s story, Anhedönia had to hand over control and let listeners hear what they wanted to. “I am trying to get better about not looking at what people think about it,” she says.
“If you engage in the record [by] listening to it because you think it’s pretty music, that’s fine. If you dig into the lyrics and make up your own interpretations, that’s also fine. If you go and you read all my comments on Tumblr and put together the bits and pieces I’ve posted about this record over the past four years and string together your conspiracy board of what the record means, that’s also fine.”
Ethel Cain provides both a well to draw from and a costume to put on and – most importantly – take off. Anhedönia wasn’t old enough to pay attention to the cynical conversations about authenticity and persona that swirled around artists like Lana Del Rey, who emerged on the indie scene readymade with heady vocals and ’60s Americana iconography.
“I was just 15 years old listening to these albums on my iPod, and that was it,” she says, name-checking both Lana and Marina Diamandis. “But I can tell you that for me, and I would imagine for these women, it’s almost smarter to create a character. It’s easier to have shoes that you can step into and out of, because I don’t think fame is healthy for anyone. It does things to your brain, literally. It puts you on a pedestal, it isolates you and it’s not good for you. I think being able to step out of a character’s shoes is necessary for your mental health.
“I think every ship needs an escape hatch and needs an eject button. And I think the same is true for characters in music. Having done it myself, now I understand why people have done it in the past.”
Preacher’s Daughter is just part one of what she plans to be a vast extended universe. On future albums – and in books and films – Anhedönia plans to trace the matrilineal line up Ethel Cain’s family tree, telling the stories of the preacher’s wife and mother.
These projects will provide her with that chance to step to the side and let others pull focus. “I really do look forward to the day where I can be an author and sit in my rocking chair and put out books and then enjoy my little quiet life as though nothing else is even happening. That is the thing I look most forward to.”
Ethel Cain will perform at the Sydney Opera House from June 2-4 as part of Vivid Live, and at the Forum Melbourne on June 9 and 10 as part of Rising.
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