Inside the World of Singer-Songwriter Ethel Cain

Ethel Cain, a rising star on the alt-pop scene, had gotten her start in music rather modestly: by posting her songs on Tumblr and SoundCloud. Now at 24 years old, she’s reached elevated levels of fame, touring across the U.S. and even appearing on Barack Obama’s end of the year playlist for 2022.


Sophia Ren (@renographics) on Instagram

Ethel Cain’s new album, ‘Preacher’s Daughter,’ has been described as a heady mix of genres, reminding many of the sounds of both Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift.

A hazy photograph depicts a gaunt woman clad in white, sitting down in a chair with her ankles crossed. Her left arm perches upon a rounded side table, upon which a metal vase and tin can are resting. Above her hangs a picture of Jesus, darkened by shadows. The painting blends in almost seamlessly with the wood-paneled wall behind the figure. A sliver of sunlight leaks from the side of the photograph and reflects upon the floorboards, the only illumination present. 

This is the cover image for the album Preacher’s Daughter, an alternative pop album that revels in its Southern Gothic theme. Containing 13 tracks that add up to 75 minutes of music, it’s the first in a trilogy of albums by singer-songwriter Ethel Cain, which follows the intergenerational conflicts of a family living in the American South. This first album follows the life of Ethel Cain, the daughter of a small town preacher, as she escapes from her suffocating hometown and ends up the victim of a gruesome killer. Chronicling her life up until her demise, it also functions as an examination of small town American life.

Upon release, the album was lauded by critics. A review by Jesper L on SputnikMusic states, “Ethel Cain’s debut album is an astonishing accomplishment; one that is as painful as it is constantly bathing in the most beautifully dreamy arrangements.” On Metacritic — a website used to review films, music, and television — Preacher’s Daughter received an average score of 8.3/10 across 89 ratings, thereby being classified as an album with universal acclaim. The album’s second track, titled American Teenager, even ended up landing on former president Barack Obama’s end of the year playlist for 2022.

Ethel Cain’s tale becomes all the more compelling when you draw comparisons from the album’s fictional Ethel to the life of the real Ethel. Cain, the stage name of Hayden Silas Anhedönia, was born in Perry, Florida, to a tight-knit Southern Baptist family. Her father was a truck driver, and her mother was involved in the church’s choir, which Anhedönia later became a part of as well. The oldest of four siblings, Anhedonia was homeschooled for a majority of her life, limited to the confines of her house. In an interview with Them magazine, she described herself as a “day one Jesus stan,” going on to state ‘Everything in my life revolved around church…Everyone I knew went to our church. I wasn’t allowed to hang out with people who didn’t. My life was entirely for Jesus.’ 

While she was aware of the outside world, she wasn’t allowed to participate in it. Secular music was never played in her home, nor were Hollywood movies. Community events were off limits unless they were faith based, and talking to those who didn’t attend her church was out of the question. According to her, moments when she was allowed out of her religious bubble, such as driving through town in her dad’s truck, were life changing. 

Anhedönia’s home life, once a seemingly idyllic bubble, imploded when she came out to her mother as gay at 12. It became a warzone for her, as news spread through the town and she became a social pariah. Parents stalked her through their children’s social media accounts in an all out witch hunt. At age 18, she left the church and the town of Perry and found work at a nail salon in a town an hour away. On her 20th birthday, she came out as a trans woman and began transitioning, legally changing her name to Hayden Silas Anhedönia.

During this time, she began to experiment with making music, using Google Band on her ipod touch and a Macbook given to her by her family as a graduation gift. She made mostly choral inspired tracks shared with her friends and family. She went on to release her music on SoundCloud under the moniker of White Silas, primarily for a small circle of friends and family.

Ditching the alias and switching it for that of Ethel Cain in 2019, she would go on to release her 2019 EP (an acronym for “extended play”) entitled Golden Age. This EP was an amalgamation of genres such as indie rock and folk music, with elements of trap infused. Golden Age gained the attention of musicians such as Nicole Dollanganger and Lil Aaron (two musicians popular in the alternative music scene), both of whom would later go on to perform with Cain. 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Cain had been invited to Los Angeles, where she met the head of Prescription Songs, the infamous Dr. Luke, who was accused of abusing the singer Kesha for years. While there, she signed onto the record, and released a new EP entitled Inbred. 

Anhedönia had been working on what would become Preacher’s Daughter in 2018, and the early concept had almost nothing in common with its later form. She would have gone with this early idea had she not stumbled across what would come to be the birth of Preacher’s Daughter: a simple piano loop. “ It just hit me,” she would later go on to tell W magazine ,“I was sitting on the bedroom floor in this old house I lived in, in Florida. The song just wrote itself in, like, 20 minutes— it was a big, dramatic, piano ballad.” This ballad would become A House in Nebraska, an eight minute track which describes the story of two doomed lovers. 

Following the release of Inbred, Anhedönia would soon leave Prescription Records, starting her own record label, Daughters of Cain. It was through this label that she would release Preacher’s Daughter. 

In the early days of Anhedönia’s music career, instead of using the persona of Ethel Cain, she instead entitled herself White Silas.
(Muxual, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons )

When she had first left her hometown, Anhedönia described herself as feeling free as a bird. She was out of a stifling environment and free to grow into her own, to go to Tallahassee and enroll in film school while pursuing her truest self. Soon however, one thing became apparent: Hayden was spiraling out of control. She’d yet to deal with her childhood, and her trauma was manifesting itself in various ways. The concept of Ethel Cain came about as a way to process this trauma, this persona being described by the singer herself as a divine intervention. She’s seen as a “bad ending” of what Hayden could have become if she’d continued her self-implosion. “You can only run so much from where you come from…Ethel was my scapegoat…If I’m the good ending, she’s the bad one.”

Preacher’s Daughter is, in a way, a continuation of these themes. Hayden’s album revolves around themes such as intergenerational trauma, and the role of religion in the American South. These two themes are intertwined heavily throughout the album, presented simultaneously in many of her songs. The second stanza of the very first song off the album, Family Tree (Intro), is “Jesus can always reject his father/ But he cannot escape his mother’s blood/ He’ll scream and try to wash it off of his fingers/ But he’ll never escape what he’s made up of.” The song is a slow burner as it emphasizes how it’s almost impossible to run away from your past, no matter how much you want to. 

The album itself moves at a slow pace, as if bogged down by the protagonist’s small town life. This quality is present throughout almost all of the songs, only alleviating slightly in American Teenager, which starts off as a catchy pop song about a football team before diving into darker territory with the death of a neighbor. Its  sound is nostalgic, conjuring up images of cheerleaders in red uniforms and waving American flags while providing a profoundly anti-war message. (Fun fact: in the official music video for American Teenager, the cheerleader uniform Hayden is wearing is her mother’s, which she found while looking through an old closet). 

A certain gloom follows Ethel as she flees her southern town and embarks through the landscape, meeting a stranger and joining him in his truck, an ill fated decision with devastating consequences. Thoroughfare offers a respite for Ethel, in which for a good ten minutes, she indulges in an idealized version of the American dream, open road and all. She sings about her newfound love, optimism shining through the track. The memory of her father — cruel and vindictive — fades away in the face of a man, who, in Ethel’s own words, “for the first time since I was a child, I could see a man who wasn’t angry.” 

This dream, however, doesn’t last. 

Ptolomea is a harsh song, grating and violent. It’s the musical manifestation of a panic attack, with doom metal reverberating throughout it. Screams overlap more screams as Ethel attempts to grapple with her loss of control. Audio interperses the song, in which a male voice speaks. The theme of intergenerational trauma is, once more, weaved throughout the song. “Blessed be the daughters of Cain, bound to eternal suffering/ through the sins of their father committed long throughout their conception.” Cain is unable to escape the destructive cycle that’s haunted her thus far, and this song, paired with the next instrumental, August Underground, is her coming to terms with her fate. 

After these two songs, the end for Ethel comes swiftly, portrayed in Televangelism, the album’s second instrumental. Haunting piano plays as Ethel’s ascension to heaven takes place, the final piece of Cain’s fate. The track is eerie, with an array of whirling piano music and ambient noise.

Sun-Bleached Flies and Strangers are two posthumous songs, chronicling the aftermath of Cain’s ascension. Sun-Bleached Flies repeats the words sung in American Teenager: “God loves you/ But not enough to save you.” This song functions as a list of all of Ethel’s regrets and tarnished hopes, with her still wishing for the house in Nebraska she so desperately wanted. “And I’m still praying for that house in Nebraska / By the highway, out on the edge of town / Dancing with the windows open.” 

Strangers is both a lament of her decisions — “When my mother sees me on the side / Of a milk carton in Winn-Dixie’s dairy aisle / She’ll cry / And wait up for me” — and a farewell to her mother, with a dash of righteous vengeance against her killer thrown in. She ends the song with a promise to her mother that the two of them will meet again in the afterlife. “Mama, just know that I love you (I do) / And I’ll see you when you get here.” The lyrics, soft and haunting, fade out as the song ends, and the page of Ethel’s story closes.

Part of what seems to draw many of Cain’s devotees to her music is her song’s relatability. She covers a particular niche of growing up ostracized in the American South, which isn’t exactly a talked about subject in mainstream pop music. “They’re like, ‘Your music really touched me. It really helped me through some stuff,’” she stated in an interview.

When asked about what drew them to Ethel’s music, Vi Ton ’24  said,  “I love her music especially because lyrically, her songs are very impactful, touching on dark themes that resonate with my personal life. She is not afraid to be blunt and emotional. That rawness and honesty makes her an incredible songwriter. Not to mention the production on her music is beautiful, and she has a unique sound compared to most popular artists we see on mainstream media, too.” 

While the fictional Ethel is dead, the real Ethel is alive and thriving, currently located in rural Alabama. This is not exactly the first place you’d expect a nascent pop star to live, but according to Ethel, she has no plans to leave the South (at least, not permanently.)  With the death of Ethel’s character on her very first album, one can’t help to wonder what, exactly, Ethel plans to do next . According to her interview with Fader magazine, she plans to embark on a new chapter in the Cain family tree, this time working her way backwards through time to Cain’s mother, creating an album that chronicles her life’s story. After that, an album about her grandmother, to tie a bow on the Cain family saga. There’s also her plans to expand the story throughout multiple mediums, with a book currently being written. 

In the next few weeks, Cain is scheduled to perform at a variety of musical festivals, having already played at Coachella. She’s done her fair share of modeling for high name brands such as Givenchy and Miu Miu. She’s also performed with a plethora of singers, such as her duet with Florence Welch on the latter’s song Morning Elvis (which is where I first discovered Ethel). 

Per her last twitter update, Cain had gone to Coachella, praising the fruit cups. The one before that? She was promoting the last of her merchandise, the long sleeve edition of a shirt specifically designed for Coachella. While the fictional Ethel’s life was one of grief at every turn, the real Ethel’s life only seems to be accelerating further and further. The death of Ethel Cain brought a plethora of success to her creator’s life, and it only seems to grow larger as the days go past. 

Ethel Cain’s album, Preacher’s Daughter, is available to listen to on Spotify .

She’s seen as a “bad ending” of what Hayden could have become if she’d continued her self-implosion. “You can only run so much from where you come from…Ethel was my scapegoat…If I’m the good ending, she’s the bad one.”