Musician Ethel Cain is not a patriot. So why does she appear on my computer screen wearing a t-shirt with an American flag printed on the front? And why is there an American flag hanging on the wall of her modest Alabama home, whose wood-paneled walls and antique furnishings conjure up images of little house on the prairie instead of a rising pop star’s pad? “I’ve always been very concerned about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer,” says the singer-songwriter, whose real name is Hayden Silas Anhedönia, with a wry smile.
The story of the flag is this: Cain, who hails from a small town in North Florida called Perry, grew up a Southern Baptist in a family full of proud Americans; “country boys,” as Cain describes them, many of whom served in the United States Army. “Growing up, my brothers and I instilled it: don’t let the flag touch the ground. Don’t let it get dirty, fade or break. Don’t hang it upside down,” he tells me. So when Cain accidentally picked up a dusty, torn and dilapidated American flag left behind in an abandoned town near his current location in Alabama, he knew he wanted to keep it.
“I’ve got my cross necklace and American flag T-shirt on, and I’m not a big fan of either of them,” she adds. “I just keep them as close to my heart as possible, in my own way of being above them. I think that’s why I talk about it so much in my art, because it’s easier to get ahead: I’m not going to get rid of you, so I might as well have this power over you.”
The religious and political iconography associated with Cain’s childhood has become the inspiration for his art form. The 24-year-old musician has been making hazy ballads and orchestral tracks since he was 15, but burst onto the scene with his American goth style in 2019, with the release of his first EP, Innate. Since then, she signed a contract with Prescription Songs, created her own record label, Daughters of Cain, and released her long-awaited debut album. preacher’s daughter the 12th of May. His fuzzy alt-pop has caught the attention of record labels, fashion brands and rapt listeners alike, giving Cain the chance to plunge headlong into stardom. (However, in all honesty, she’d rather not: “If it were up to me, I’d just sit at home and never leave, and be a nobody.”) But with the release of preacher’s daughter, Cain has agreed to play the album release promotion game. He plans to travel to Paris in the weeks following this interview, the first time he has flown out of the United States. “It’s definitely a little stressful, but I’m choosing to look at it as something fun to do. get to do and not a task you have to do,” says Cain. “I’ve been trying to rewire my brain.”
Cain’s mind is attached to his surroundings in the American South. She calls the region, with all its conservative leanings and cultural paradoxes, a “strange comfort.” Perhaps that is why the artist is able to approach her musical theme with a critical, but somewhat loving gaze. She talks about her super-religious, nationalistic, traditional upbringing with equal parts nostalgia and a kind of sober frustration.
His childhood began and ended in church: Cain’s father was a deacon in his first Baptist congregation and his mother was in the choir. He spent at least four days a week in the boys’ choir and youth group. “That small-town church was my whole world,” she says. “Everything was consumed. I was not allowed to know anything outside of that.” Church turned out to be Cain’s first exposure to music: He often sat in on his mother’s choir practice and spent weeks in the summer attending Vacation Bible School, a musical getaway for the parish. “My whole life was always singing, always, always music all the time,” says Cain. “It’s no wonder I fell in love with him, because he’s a constant force in my life.”
Aside from hymns and liturgical melodies, Cain’s parents kept the familiar things in the house. They listened to Karen Carpenter, the Steve Miller Band, and contemporary Christian artists, and sometimes, if the musician was alone in his father’s truck with him, he would put on something by Lynyrd Skynyrd. (“He’d say, ‘Don’t tell your mom,’” Cain recalls.) He began taking piano lessons at age eight, playing classical music. “I think that has lent itself to the melodrama that still pervades my life,” says Cain.
In her childhood, Cain describes herself as being close to her family, but as she reached her teens, “it became clear to everyone that I wasn’t like other people,” she says. “Every time I started to develop, I started to become a trans woman.” It was an instant war. “We were a divided house,” adds Cain. “It was me against all my people.” Around the age of 16, her church attendance began to decline; she put it down to her busy schedule taking dual enrollment classes at a nearby community college, but in reality, she couldn’t consider the politics within the church and the actual scriptures. they followed. “Every church we went to, it never felt very good,” she says. “It was never so much for me about God. For me, it was more about how people interacted with each other in the name of God. All the personal drama was really weird. I was like, God doesn’t even feel like he’s here. I’m spiritual in my own way now, but the Christian religion doesn’t really go any further for me than just fodder for my artwork.”
Cain started making music using the Garage Band app on his iPod Touch and a MacBook that his grandparents and parents put together to buy as a graduation present. His first song, a track called “Altar”, was very experimental. “I didn’t know anything about what I was doing, production-wise,” recalls Cain. “But I made the song in one night.” He posted it on SoundCloud and went on to make “super ambient songs, with lots of vocals, organ sounds, weird synths, and too much reverb” in the months that followed. Those tracks went to Spotify and Apple Music, drawing the attention of other artists like Nicole Dollanganger and Midwestern emo rapper Lil Aaron, who grew fond of her sound.
Dollanganger and Lil Aaron connected with Cain through Instagram: Cain took a Greyhound bus from Florida to New York City to attend one of Dollanganger’s concerts and ended up opening for his concert in Chicago. Meanwhile, Lil Aaron invited Cain to come to Los Angeles to meet the Prescription Songs team (including Dr. Luke, the producer and music industry polarizing figure who runs the publisher). She played them three demos that would become central pillars of preacher’s daughterincluding the song “A House in Nebraska”.
The making of that track fueled the entire album. Cain had previously started work on the record in early 2018; for about eight months, he created a completely different project. The sound, name and feel of him was nothing like preacher’s daughter. While he was downloading samples for the other project, she came across a piano sample that he couldn’t get out of his mind. “She just hit me,” she says. “I was sitting on the bedroom floor in this old house that she lived in, in Florida. The song wrote itself in about 20 minutes – it was a great dramatic piano ballad.” She scrapped the previous project, changed the name, and began work on what became preacher’s daughter, all of which revolved around this proverbial house in Nebraska that he had dreamed up in his head. “I saw Nebraska as the center of America, a great open expanse, an open wheat field that went on forever and ever,” she says. “It was this empty place that I imagined running away to one day, being completely alone with the love of my life forever. It’s heaven on earth, you’ll never be bothered again.”
Even though Nebraska became a distant dream of a better place and the centerfold of the album—preacher’s daughter it is set in the patriotic and religious South, like most of Cain’s music. Even his first EP, Innate, mocks the stereotypes associated with a southern lifestyle. “Growing up in the South, you hear a lot of jokes about marrying your cousin,” she says. “But a lot of my music is about intergenerational trauma and issues that run in your family, that run through the bloodlines.
“[When I made Inbred,] I was not an artist. He barely had any followers. So I said, Oh, there are no consequences,” she adds. Currently, Cain says that he is trying to get back to that place, making music just for her, not caring what anyone else might think. “Going from absolutely nobody to having a billboard in Times Square, it’s been a lot to process in the last two years,” she says. “I made this record so specifically for my tastes, and right at the end, I made some changes based on my own concerns about: Is it going to get good reviews? Will it do well in the press? Will people like it? Will they broadcast it? In the future, I’m just leaving my phone. I don’t want to think of myself as a bigger artist than I was when I started making music. My whole world exists in this room, with my guitar, my piano, my computer and my words.”