The Book of Ethel Cain: How the Alternative Phenom Built Up Her Own Reality Only to Tear It Down

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It’s a balmy Wednesday afternoon in April, and Hayden Anhedönia is basking in the sunshine of her Alabama home. Dressed in a white T-shirt advertising her independent label Daughters of Cain, the 24-year-old makes it clear that she is the one speaking — “Oh, call me Hayden, for sure,” she says over a Zoom call, smiling. 

That’s an important distinction for Anhedönia to make — most people know her as Ethel Cain, the dark, brooding, God-fearing alternative artist taking the industry by storm. Having a stage name isn’t uncommon among artists in 2022, but for Anhedönia, Ethel Cain is so much more than a nom de plume.

Ethel Cain is kind of my dark, evil twin,” Anhedönia offers directly, before taking a moment to clarify. “She’s not evil, per se, but we have both been through similar situations. If I didn’t choose to heal and forgive and forget, I would be ultimately destroyed, which is what happens to her. She is the mirrored version of what my life would be like if I chose not to get better.” 

The mythos around the character of Ethel Cain is long enough to fill a novel or a film — or, in Anhedönia’s case, a concept album. Preacher’s Daughter, her glorious debut LP (out Thursday, May 12 via Daughters of Cain), tells the story of the titular character coming to terms with an imperfect existence; abuse, ignorance, societal standards, love and hatred all set Cain on a fateful journey as she ventures on a destructive path of self-discovery.

“It’s a big story,” Anhedönia admits. “It’s this all-American girl who crumbles under the weight of God and country. The American Dream is unachievable — being a perfect daughter, a perfect Christian, all of these weights that are put onto young American people are impossible. I like to think of this album as a cautionary tale of what would happen if you don’t free yourself from these imaginary chains, in terms of religion, family and expectation.”

Preacher’s Daughter is a story that Anhedönia has been crafting for the vast majority of her adult life — after leaving her close-knit, religious family home in Florida at the age of 18 and beginning her transition process, the singer started writing this album, dedicating her time to making sure the songs reflected the narrative beats she intended to touch on, while also standing on their own.

Even as she begins to talk about its release, Anhedönia is still in shock that Preacher’s Daughter is going to be released. “Everything I have done has been working up to this album,” she says, as a look of awe comes across her face. “Everything in my whole life has been leading up to finishing this record.”

Making the album meant much more than simply writing the songs — since the start of her career (under her former stage name White Silas), Anhedönia has made it a point to perform, write and produce all of her music herself. It started out through necessity — having no professional connections to producers, and armed only with “a cracked-version of GarageBand on an old school laptop,” Anhedönia had to teach herself how to produce in order to survive the industry. 

Nowadays, those connections have formed — Daughters of Cain, the independent label Anhedönia created and releases her music through, operates as an imprint of the industry-shaping publishing company Prescription Songs. Yet throughout Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain is listed as songwriter and producer on all 13 songs, with only the occasional assist.

I guess I don’t play well enough with others,” Anhedönia offers dryly before letting out a laugh. “The world that I am building has been built in tandem with my production skills and my production knowledge, and it all influences each other. So bringing in another producer would completely shift the narrative. This story is being told sonically as well; the rise, the fall, the swells, the reverb, every turn of a knob, of a dial, of a slider, it all affects the story!”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the singer did everything herself. When faced with a creative need for more instruments throughout her album, paired with a lack of experience playing said instruments, Anhedönia turned to a few trusted collaborators, including multi-instrumentalist Matt Tomasi, to contribute to her sound. “That was really hard — he’s very good at what he does, and even still, as good as he was, I was very nervous, because I was so used to having my hands on it up until the day that I submit it,” she says.

Anhedönia says she’s glad that she’s in control of her own sound, and is even happier to see more up-and-coming artist taking the reins of production into their own hands. “I go on TikTok every now and then — and by ‘now and then,’ I do mean all of the time, I am addicted to the endless media scrolling — and see kids on there that are learning how to produce,” she says with an excited smile. “I swear to God, the industry is going to see a big shift towards the favor of the artist in the near future, when the artist relies less on the industry to make music. That’s what I’m excited about.” 

Throughout the album, those self-produced flourishes remain intact — her fusion of alternative, folk, pop and rock all blend together, allowing the listener to find themselves adrift in her blissful sonic universe. And then, they start listening to the words. Ethel Cain has become well known for pairing heavy, foreboding lyrics over ear-pleasing melodies in her past releases, and Preacher’s Daughter is no exception to that trend. Throughout her album, the story of Cain follows through-lines of suicidal ideation, heartbreak and loss of faith.

But one theme throughout the album is Cain’s in-depth exploration of abuse, both sexual and otherwise. Framed through the narrative of a daughter running away from a father who doesn’t understand that “some types of love could be bad” as she sings on “Hard Times,” Anhedönia said that the writing process of this album was a way for her to let go of her own trauma regarding abuse. 

“When I write it into a song — and this is one of the reasons that I created this alter ego instead of releasing it as myself — is that it’s like I give it to her,” Anhedönia says. “When it’s happening to her, it’s no longer happening to me, it’s now her problem.”

One particular song where Anhedönia explores the fallout from abuse is “Ptolemaea,” a late-album track that sounds like it was lifted off of the soundtrack of a psychological horror film. The song’s outro, spoken in a demonic voice and barely audible over explosive guitar feedback, offers a twisted blessing that hammers the point home: “Blessed be you, girl,” the distorted voice sneers. “Promised to me by a man who can only feel hatred and contempt towards you.”

Ethel Cain

The song was named after one of four concentric rings of the Ninth Circle of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, dedicated to those who betrayed their guests, which immediately struck a chord with Anhedönia. “I was immediately like, ‘That’s how it feels.’ When someone invites you in, brings you into their life, just to hurt you. I was scared of the demo the next day when I listened to it.”

Without going into the specifics of her own experiences, Anhedönia makes it clear that she has given herself the time, space and consideration to heal from her own experiences, and she’s ready to allow herself to move on. “At first, I was very angry, very resentful. Now, I’m ready to let go,” she says. “One of the things I always tell my friends is that somebody can stick a knife in your back one time, but you don’t have to keep taking it out and stabbing yourself with it over and over again. Like, I am done, I am tired of this being a recurring theme, I’m tired of it affecting my relationships with new people I’ve just met, I’m tired of it ruling my life! So I really went into ‘forgive and forget’ mode.”

As with many of her past releases, Preacher’s Daughter also explores her own identity as a transgender woman navigating the world after being raised in a fanatical Southern Baptist community. Bringing in themes of modern womanhood and the fetishization of femininity in religious circles, Anhedönia wanted to make it clear on her debut that both she and her alter ego are fully-formed transgender women.

But Preacher’s Daughter never veers toward stereotypical or glamorized depictions of what it means to be trans — in fact, it often goes out of its way to steer into the mundane and temporal aspects of life as a trans woman. According to Anhedönia, it’s her quiet way of bringing attention to the fact that trans people are not a monolith.

I want some variation for the trans experience as depicted in trans art,” Anhedönia explains. “Ethel Cain the character is trans, but I didn’t make it a big part of the story because to me, being transgender is kind of boring. It’s like, ‘I have brown hair, I’m transgender’ — it’s very ‘whatever,’ you know? Ultimately, it’s not about the identity itself, it’s about the freedom to be whatever you are.”

That being said, Anhedönia says she does hope other trans people who have felt left out of certain depictions of trans people in media feel seen in her work, especially given the ongoing attacks against trans lives in state legislatures around the U.S. “I try not to follow what’s happening, and it still winds up on my timeline — that’s how you know that it is bad,” she says with a sigh. “We have a humanization problem, where these people [right-wing lawmakers] see you as a stereotype and not as a person. I hope that, in time, we will start to see a softening on their part as we keep becoming visible.”

Preacher’s Daughter contains an ending that feels very final for the character of Ethel Cain — after carving her way through the countryside, struggling to understand her own trauma, Cain ends this chapter with “Strangers,” a song that revels in its own muddled worldview of the myth of a “happy ending.” Conjuring up images of women in freezers and Cain’s face on the side of a milk carton, Anhedönia leaves the ending grey, but hints at a gruesome fate for Ethel.

Despite this, Anhedönia is steadfast in saying that there is much more to come from Ethel Cain. “It’s a trilogy,” she says, matter-of-factly. “This story is the end of her story, and then it’s going backwards up her family tree — the first record is about Ethel, the daughter, the next record will be about her mother, and then the third will be about her grandmother.”

As for herself, Anhedönia is similarly prepared for the future, listing off the myriad goals she intends to tick off her list in the coming years. “I really just wanna start beefing up all of my skills, to be honest,” she says, listing off writing a book, producing an Ethel-inspired film, releasing experimental music under name and learning to sew again as just a few of her goals. “I wouldn’t say I’m a musician or a filmmaker, I’m just a storyteller, and there are a lot of ways that you can tell a story. I want to go find all of them and put them under my belt.”

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