It Girl Issue
Ethel Cain Is Still Searching For Herself
Fans are flocking to her shows. New York Fashion Week couldn’t get enough of her. But for the singer-songwriter, there’s no place like home.
Bones, haunted dolls, little jars of dirt, and collages handmade from Bible pages and “MISSING” posters: These are just a few of the gifts that Ethel Cain’s fans have lined up to offer her this summer. For some artists, being handed a container of dusty human teeth at the merch table would be no small cause for alarm. For the 24-year-old musician, whose real name is Hayden Anhedönia, it’s your average night on her first-ever North American tour. Each stop for the past two months, venues from Phoenix to Montreal to Tallahassee became scenes resembling Cottagecore Anonymous meetings, where stans in braids and Gunne Sax dresses camped out for hours to see “Meemaw” (as they’ve affectionately dubbed her). As for the teeth, Anhedönia is touched: “I think it’s just the coolest thing ever.”
The afternoon we speak, the unofficial bard of Feral Girl Summer FaceTimes from the back seat of the tour van, somewhere between Nashville and New York City, where she’ll play sold-out shows at Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg. With the September sun glinting in her hair and catching her pink acrylic claws, Anhedönia gives off the vibe of a slightly scuzzier Riley Keough in Zola or in American Honey — two all-American road trip flicks that fit comfortably in the Ethel Cain Aesthetic Universe. When she’s not out promoting her acclaimed debut album, May’s hauntingly gorgeous Preacher’s Daughter, Anhedönia lives in a wood-paneled, antler-adorned home she shares with her sister near an Army post in southern Alabama. And though these days often feel light-years removed from the rural quietude of her life just a year ago, Anhedönia was ready for the chaos.
“All the seeds that we’ve been sowing over the past year or two have started to sprout over the dirt,” she says with a smile, her face haloed by stick-and-pokes spelling the Hebrew names of an archangel and demon across her forehead. “And now we’re furiously watering them and playing them classical music, trying to get them to grow.”
In the Ethel Cain origin story, those seeds were planted in 2018, just after Anhedönia’s 20th birthday and around the time she came out on Facebook as trans. She had traded her tiny, swampy, Bible-thumping hometown for Tallahassee, where she worked at a nail salon and spent her free time partying at weird goth clubs and making moody electronic music with vaguely Satanic iconography. (“The vibes were, like, rancid, but they were also great,” she says.) Then, in a moment you could call divine intervention, the idea for Ethel struck her — a preacher’s daughter coming of age in the ‘90s, grappling with family trauma, religious guilt, and “the expectations of you as a woman versus the woman that you’re becoming inherently,” as Anhedönia puts it. The music was both of its time and out of it: the murky beats of GothBoiClique, Bruce Springsteen arena Americana, Mazzy Star’s psychedelic melancholy, the angelic melodies of ‘90s Christian pop. Picture Laura Ingalls Wilder with a SoundCloud, or an Andrew Wyeth subject with a solid ketamine connect. Punctuating it all were moments of pastoral bliss — the chirp of cicadas at dusk, or the wide-open highway at night.
Anhedönia has been thinking a lot lately about her Tallahassee days. “That was, I think, the most authentic version of myself and my music, a capsule of a time that’s now over and never will be again,” she says, her tattooed fingers curled around a Starbucks lemonade. “I was looking at all the shit that’s happening now with work and music, and I was like, when did I become this? When did this become me? And the old me I thought I knew — where’d she go? And is it going to be like this forever, and I’m going to constantly surprise myself with who I’ve become?”
Among the surprises: She’s blossomed into a fashion starlet, having recently put aside her Etsy frocks and thrifted NASCAR T-shirts to take a turn as the face of Givenchy’s Fall/Winter 2022 campaign alongside Playboi Carti and models Liya Kebede and Vittoria Ceretti. In between her NYC shows, Anhedönia made a run for the title of New York Fashion Week’s rookie of the year, sitting front row at Proenza Schouler and walking the runway for Eckhaus Latta as if she’d done it a hundred times before. “I didn’t really follow high fashion that much before, other than on Tumblr, so I’ve been kind of crash-coursing it,” she says. “But obviously, clothes and style have been very much a part of what I’ve been doing, so it’s been cool to think about that more in depth. I’ve been trying to come up with an idea for my own collection, if that were ever a thing.”
Opportunities like these would’ve been written off as pipe dreams in her hometown of Perry, Florida, where secular music was mostly off-limits and the biggest celebrities were Dale Earnhardt and Jesus Christ. Describing the feeling she chases through art, she burrows into her memories: “It’s the end of the ‘90s, beginning of the ‘00s, and I’m sitting at the little table in my uncle’s trailer, smelling them chain-smoke their cigarettes and playing Monopoly,” she says. “There’s carpet and wood paneling, and there’s a football game on TV, or NASCAR, or my dad’s watching Cops.” She reveres the analog, preferring her VHS tape collection to whatever’s streaming on Netflix, and has a habit of scanning Zillow for the few houses in her area that haven’t yet been remodeled into minimalist gray boxes. “The world is weird, and the older you get, the less you want to know, because it’s not great most of the time,” she continues. “I think everyone, in some way, wants to crawl back to those places, where they didn’t know what was going on, so they just believed everything was good.”
Listening to the Ethel Cain discography — Preacher’s Daughter, plus three EPs of occasionally brutal dream-pop — you might come away with an idea of Anhedönia as a bit of a downer. In reality, she’s funny and unfailingly polite, talking a mile a minute with a cute minor lisp. “When the album first came out, I saw a lot of comments that were like, ‘This album is so depressing and morbid — God, what’s going on with her?’” she says with a laugh. People are surprised when they see how cheerful she is IRL. “Well, yeah, I’m not in that headspace because I dumped it all out in these songs. I’m always one to wallow, to wrap myself up in some bullshit and sit with it for a while. But at the end of the day, as an adult, you realize you do have to move on at some point. So you make freaky, nasty, weird art, and then you don’t feel that way anymore.”
It helps, she adds, that she filters her music through the lens of fiction. Several songs on Preacher’s Daughter deal with traumatic family dynamics repurposed from the darkest years of Anhedönia’s teenage life, back when coming out as gay made her a local pariah and won her a trip to religious therapy. (These days, her parents are devoted Ethel Cain fans.) But, by the final song, the Ethel Cain character has been cannibalized by a man she’d met hitchhiking — you know, your standard debut-album fare.
Anhedönia’s unfiltered online presence balances out the bleakness. On Twitter, she’s been known to riff on drunk trips to antique shops, being creatively inspired by Riverdale, or her secret tenure as a teenage fan-fiction author; it’s since been scrubbed from the internet, but she once wrote a 10-chapter One Direction vampire fan-fic — for a friend, she insists. Lately she’s feeling less compelled to share every random thought with a growing audience (though she’ll never abandon her Tumblr, which she describes, post-2018 porn ban, as “a nice, quiet little senior citizen hall where we all sit and play bingo”). “Back when I started, I was like, I have to be a good artist, and I have to be funny, and I have to be the whole package and market myself,” she says. “Now I’m like, OK, I think I earned my little corner with my album. Now I can sit here and play with my toys and make my art, and I don’t have to do all these other things to be, like, deserving of it.”
Of all the accolades Anhedönia’s received since Preacher’s Daughter’s release, the most meaningful came from Florence Welch. In October, Ethel will open for the Denver stop of Florence & The Machine’s fall tour — a full-circle moment for a girl who once camped out for 27 hours on the band’s 2018 tour to be in the front row. (There’s a sweet photo of her and Welch from that show, hands clasped and foreheads pressed against one another’s.) It makes Anhedönia’s head spin to think how different her life’s become. “You spend all your time trying to get to know yourself, but you’re constantly changing, and by the time you might have any semblance of who you are and how you feel, you’ve changed again,” Anhedönia says. “I’m constantly looking at old photos of myself, photos of my friends and places I’ve been, listening to my old music. I think I’m just so desperate to pin something down and be like, There I am, that’s me. Sometimes I think, will I ever really know myself? And how will anyone else ever know me if I can’t know myself definitively?”
For now, it helps to remind herself of the reason she started writing music in the first place: “Because there was a void of something I wanted, and I went and filled it with a song.” And while Anhedönia’s world now expands far beyond that little corner of the Florida Panhandle, she intends to keep her idea of “home” pretty much the same. “I very much like the idea that at the end of the day, no matter what’s happening, you come home to your little house, your little bedroom, your little bed,” she says, a blur of trees and sky slipping by outside the van windows.
She has big plans for her first day back in Alabama: “First, I’m going to completely go into a weed coma and watch something really fucked-up on YouTube that my sister has in her likes, and I’m going to lay in her bed and disassociate,” she says, laughing but serious. “My next day back, I’m going to open Ableton, and I’m going to make a song.”
Photographs by Josefina Santos