Ethel Cain is the project of 23-year-old singer-songwriter Hayden Silas Anhedönia, who grew up in a conservative Florida town and currently resides in an old church in rural Indiana. Having left the Southern Baptist community at 16, a few years before she would come out as trans woman, Anhedönia started experimenting with music under the moniker White Silas before inventing the persona of Ethel Cain, who she describes as “the wife of a corrupt Preacher.” She developed her sound through a series of ethereal, lo-fi projects, but her new EP, Inbred, marks a clear shift in style: though still written, recorded, produced, and mixed almost entirely by Anhedönia (with features from emo-rap artist lil aaron and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal), it’s her first after signing to the publishing and management company Prescription Songs, which includes her own imprint, Daughters of Cain – a reference to the mother-like figure she represents to her listeners. The 6-track project deftly showcases Anhedönia’s dynamic vocal range, pairing her harrowing lyrics about toxic relationships and self-image with live drums and distorted guitars that make the music sound even more like an exorcism. But this is just the beginning for Ethel Cain, whose story will be fully explored in an upcoming project – a massive, two-and-a-half-hour album she plans to release next summer along with a novel and eventually a feature film.
We caught up with Hayden a.k.a. Ethel Cain for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her influences growing up, the origins of Ethel Cain, her relationship with her followers, Inbred, and more.
One of the things that drew me to the sound of your new EP is its versatility – there’s still that ethereal, dreamy vibe that defined the Carpet Bed and Golden Age EPs, but there are more elements of rock and country and even hip-hop while still staying very much within the goth realm. I’m curious what kind of sounds you grew up with and how your influences have developed over the past few years.
When I was growing up, my mom was in choir. She loved Christian music – that was really all that we were able to listen to. We listened to a lot of late 90s, early 2000s Christian rock synth-type music, like Michelle Tumes, Nichole Nordemann, lots of stuff like that. Obviously choir music, because we would practice for choir all the time around the house; my mom would play Gregorian chant CDs in the kitchen while she cooked. The one non-Christian band that my mother loved was The Carpenters, which is funny because I hated The Carpenters when I was a kid and now I love them. My mother had the cultural hold over the house – she was like, “What I say goes,” and, “These kids aren’t allowed to do anything that isn’t Christian.” So the the only taste of non-Christian music that I think I got was, my dad would listen to country music in the truck, he would listen to Johnny Cash, Keith Urban, he loved Lynrd Skynyrd. And so he would play that in the truck all the time whenever it was just the two of us driving around, like when we would go hunting or whatever. So it was a very interesting dichotomy between, like, Christian church hymns on repeat and then the little bit of country that I’d get in the truck whenever I was out with my dad.
That was pretty much it until I hit – I think I was about 12 or 13, I saw a Kidz Bop commercial, and they were playing ‘Hot N’ Cold’ by Katy Perry and the melody was so infectious. It was like the first pop song I’d ever heard in my life, and I was like, “What is this?” And so I went to my grandma’s computer and I looked it up, and I just went down this rabbit hole of pop music that my mother was like, “This is evil, you cannot listen to this,” but I would sneak listen to it on my own at my Mimi’s house. And then at the end of high school I started diving into more alternative music – decades of classic rock, hip-hop, the rest of the the country music world, all this music that everybody loved and my friends knew that I’d never known about. It’s been kind of like, each year that goes by I pick a new genre and get into that. Right now I would definitely say it’s classic rock; I keep buying, like, Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard Greatest Hits CDs and blasting them in my truck. But it’s been a lot of music to catch up on since I left the church.
What stuck with you the most when you were discovering more alternative stuff?
First off, obviously I loved my pop music when I was first finding “secular” music, as my mother called it. It was just what was on the radio – I didn’t really have any friends who had cool music tastes to show me, so I would just listen to what was on the radio. But as I got more into social media in high school, they started introducing me to like, Florence, who became my biggest musical inspiration of all time. They introduced me to Lana and Marina and the Diamonds and HAIM and Imogen Heap, all these more indie pop artists. And then from there I was able to dive in even further and started discovering more underground artists, and then it just kind of exploded from there. But I would say if anything stuck with me – when I was in high school, I listened to a lot of really dreamy electronic pop, and there was this one band, their name was Kye Kye, which is funny because they are Christian band, which I found out recently. But they make this super lush, dreamy, just huge dream pop, and they have this one album called Fantasize, and I bought the CD I think my junior year, and I don’t know what it was, but that album just stuck with me. It was just the dreamiest thing I’d ever heard. I was like, “I have to make music like this someday.” It reminded me a lot of the Christian synthpop my mom played growing up. I would say that was probably my biggest takeaway, at least in my high school years. Nothing really sticks anymore – it’s just kind of in one ear and out the other, there’s so much new music coming my way all the time.
You mentioned discovering all those artists online – I know that you grew up in a small town where there’s obviously a strong sense of community, but were there any kind of communities outside of that, in online or artistic spaces, that you found yourself gravitating to?
Before high school, no. We pretty much hung out – I was homeschooled my whole life, and so there was a group of other homeschooled kids that went to the same church as I did. There were probably about maybe 8 or 10 of us and I was friends with a couple of them, but it was like my whole life until high school when I – I think I signed up for Twitter the summer before my freshman year. And that’s when I started finding friends and I was like, “Oh my god, there’s other people in the world that exist.” The very first community that I would say I was ever a part of was the Florence and the Machine fandom, or the Flos, as we called ourselves forever ago. It was just a group of like, 14-15-year-olds, and we all were just obsessed with Florence and the Machine and that was my first social circle outside of my hometown, it was just all these kids from all over the world; I had friends from London, I had friends from Singapore, I had friends from South Africa, all these kids were coming together and that was my first real experience with, like, a friend group, a social community, and it was really exciting. They taught me a lot of stuff. I’ve met a couple of them in person now; I’m still friends with a lot of them. It was a really interesting little branch off into the real world.
I think a lot of people in our generation had similar experiences in online communities. You mentioned Twitter – I’m curious what role Tumblr played, because I know you still have a blog on there.
Yeah, I was not popular on Tumblr at all. And I was always so jealous of the girls who were popular on there. I wanted to be them so bad. But I just love Tumblr, like I honestly hate Twitter to death, I just can’t leave, I feel like I’m trapped there forever now. But Tumblr was such a cool little community of artists and, you know, now everybody’s left that website so it’s just pretty pictures and that’s it, which I love that even better. I think I saw somebody just describe it as “media without the social” and I was like, “Ah, perfect!” But I would definitely say that Tumblr was my favorite in high school. It was just weird – people on there were batshit crazy, like fully unhinged, and I loved it.
Did you feel like pursuing art and music, or even just engaging in those communities that were so different to what you were exposed to, did that feel in any way like a reaction to the sheltered upbringing that you had? Or was it just a different type of community that you felt more connected to?
Oh, 100%. I mean, these were the people who opened my eyes to the way the world works, you know. When you live in a small Christian community, it’s like there’s all these almost cult-like reaffirmations that like, “This is wrong, this is right.” And they hide a lot of stuff from you, you know, you have no idea what’s going on in the world. I was 12 or 13 getting on Twitter and meeting the first queer people I’d ever met in my whole life, meeting the first people who weren’t Christians. And so they definitely opened my eyes because all these kids were from different places around the world, all these new cultures, all these new aesthetic subsets – just everything, everything in the world that I’d never known about was coming at me hard and fast. It was almost overwhelming; I felt like I’d been like living in a snow globe my whole life and I was like, “What is going on?” But it was really beautiful to know that there were things out there that you could get into and be interested in. I felt like some little like child who’d grown up in the woods seeing a car for the first time.
How about the music-making aspect of it?
I think I wrote my first album when I was like 15, I wrote it on this little Casio keyboard I had in my room. It was right after I found Florence. And you know, growing up it was choir music and that was it and I wasn’t really inspired to write it, because I didn’t want to just, like, write hymns – which is funny, because now I do. And when I found Florence, I was like, “What the hell, this is the craziest shit I’ve ever heard,” so I sat down, I tried to write an album, I wrote probably 20 songs in this little notebook because I wanted to be her so bad, I wanted to make music just like her. And so it was all these new things that were coming into my life, I was like, “I have to write music about this.” I didn’t put out my first mixtape until I was 19, so it was other four years, but yeah, it was definitely that moment when I was like, “Okay, there’s a huge world out there,” and making music was the easiest way to kind of make sense of it all for myself.
Did it feel very much like a private thing at the time, like a personal form of expression?
Oh, yeah. When I first started making music, I didn’t share it with anybody – I mean, those songs I don’t even think that I showed my mom. I think I showed her one song and that was it. But yeah, it was almost more like a diary, so I never put anything out. I think it was my first mixtape when I first posted music online, and I was just kind of like – because I’d been complaining to my best friend, I was like, “I want to be a musician.” She was like, “Well, you have to make music and I actually put it out to do that.” And I was like, “Okay.” So I made some songs, I put them on SoundCloud and people liked them, you know, my friends were like, “Oh my god, this is so cool, you should keep making music.” And so I made my first mixtape I think in three months, I had like 15 songs and I put them all out. And I was like, “Wow, that felt really good. That feels very vulnerable but also super exciting to have my music out there like that.” It was such a rush, and so I was like, “I have to do that again,” and so I put out another EP four months later, and it was even more exciting, so I was like, “Okay, I have to keep doing this.” And then I kept doing it, and you know, here we are.
I’m interested, from that point on, in the genesis of Ethel Cain. I know that you used to go by White Silas, and in an interview last year, you said that the moniker represents the trope of the corrupt Preacher’s wife, which came from wanting to explore “the intersection between my experiences in the heavily religious American South and my dreams of the wild and free American West.” First off, is that still how want Ethel Cain to be perceived?
So, just to preface, I have been working on my debut record as Ethel Cain for the past three and a half years, and the way that I see Ethel Cain is in the context of that record. Ethel Cain to me is not as much Inbred, it is not as much Golden Age, as it is my record. So the vision that I have of Ethel Cain cannot be fully realized until that record is out. So it’s been kind of, like, biting my tongue with the way people are perceiving my EP, which is no fault of their own, you know, you can only know about an artist as much as they’ve put out. But the fully realized, “unhappy wife of a corrupt preacher,” all of that will be fully explored with my record. It is a concept album, it is full American gothic – I’m moving back down South to shoot all the visuals, like, it’s a story. As I was White Silas when I started the record, I’ve changed name since to better realize that record and bring it to life. But Ethel Cain to me will always be that Southern preacher’s wife, man-eater, cult-leader, freaky bitch; that’s who she is to me. She is a character – at first I kind of was like, “Okay, well do I portray her as being me?” But I was like, “No, I am not Ethel Cain. Ethel Cain is character, Ethel Cain is a project.” And after realizing that she was a character, I was looking at, “Well, now I can fully dive into her mythos.”
I can’t wait to see that vision be fully realized in the context of the record. But I still think it’s interesting to talk about it, at least in concept. One thing that struck me about the way you talked about it is how you seek to combine the two worlds that you grew up with, rather than kind of leaning more on the idea of freedom or escapism, but instead integrating that archetypal, religious imagery. Is it more of an attempt to subvert or reclaim those tropes, or is it an earnest way of clinging to your roots?
I think it’s both. I do love clinging to my roots – I mean, I grew up in the South, I love the South; I love the way that it looks, I love the air, I love the water, I love the trees. I love that very honest, hardworking, simple lifestyle that everyone around me had, you know, it’s just honest living. There was a period in high school where I wanted to run away to a big city and be a big city girl and go to clubs and party and be this crazy avant-garde person, but then as I got older I was like, “I don’t really think that’s for me, I don’t really think I would do well in that environment. I really just want to go back down outh and live in the woods.” So it’s definitely, like, sticking to your roots, but it’s also a reclamation. As time went on, I was like, “I’m gonna revisit this, but I’m going to revisit it in a way where I’m in control of that.” And so Ethel to me is an imagining of what I wish I could have been; I always say she’s all-powerful, she’s in control, and nobody can do anything to her that she doesn’t want done to her. And so I kind of made that the embodiment of what I want to be, and now I work towards that through making music as Ethel Cain. She’s just kind of, almost like a mood board of what I want to be like as an adult, what I want to be later in life.
It’s interesting how that extends to your fanbase as well, because obviously, they call themselves “the daughters of Cain.” I’m curious how that started and whether you embraced it right away.
That kind of started when I was in the Florence and the Machine fandom. Everybody called Florence Mother, and I always thought that was funny, the idea of this ethereal person being this mother figure. So when I started making music and developing Ethel Cain – for one thing, it sounds cult-y, which is kind of the aesthetic of the project, and almost like a weird, twisted, comforting wing. You know, “Come to Mother, Mother will take care of you,” that whole thing. I wanted it to feel very personal, and when people would message me, when I started to get people listening to my music that were beyond my friends, they would call me Mother, and I was like, “Okay, this is weird, I’m like 20 years old, but okay.” But it kind of just stuck, and I found myself taking on that role in the project; Ethel became this very, like, cooing, deep, soft-spoken woman who’s like, “I’ll take care of you, come here, let me wrap you up in my arms,” and, “Listen to this music, everything’s gonna be okay.” She’s like a mother to all these wayward daughters. I love the idea that Ethel Cain has all her daughters and they’re this big scary weirdo family living out in the woods.
Coming from the Florence and the Machine fandom, which was so important to your own growth, how does it feel now to have created your own community? Because you also have a very interactive relationship with your fans.
I honestly love it. Like I said earlier, music has always been very personal and very kind of secretive for me, so it was very scary to put it out online and luckily I have been blessed enough to have people who love it and who listen to it and resonate with it. So I felt like it’d be very selfish for me to not interact with them, you know, if they’re having discussions about my music and trying to discuss it with me. I love that there are people in this world who are passionate enough about my music to be so outspoken in their love for it, and it’s like the bare minimum I can do is to just be as interactive with them as possible. It’s another reason I like to call them “daughters,” I feel like the word “fans” is so impersonal. Some of them I’m pen pals with, we write letters back and forth, you know, I get on Instagram Live and chitchat with them, talk to them on Tumblr, it’s just so fun to interact with them. I’m like, “Oh my god, these people are like real people who are having experiences with my music like I have with other people’s music,” and that constantly blows my mind. So I love to get to know them and I really do consider us to be like a big family. You know, there’s not a ton of us, but the people who are here are very in love with the project and I’m in love with them.
At the same time, I get the sense that you’ve always had the ambition of becoming famous – if not you as Hayden, then Ethel as a character. And obviously, you’ve been getting more and more traction with each project. First of all, how does that feel, especially compared to the tight-knit community that you’ve built over the past few years? Are you afraid of losing that bond?
Yeah. I mean, just to start in the beginning, I do hope that Ethel becomes famous. I hope that my music and my art reaches as wide as it can; I would love to offer to people what has been offered to me through the art of others. I don’t ever want to be famous. I am terrified at the thought of being so on display and just available to the whole world to pick apart whenever they want to, you know. I don’t ever want to get to the point where I can’t, like, walk down the street or just exist normally in the world with other people. I think putting celebrities on a pedestal is so ridiculous, because I don’t think anybody is that important. So while I would love for people to know my art, and I would love to leave some kind of an artistic legacy on the world, in my own little corner, I as a person, I as Hayden, hope that I never get famous. I actively pray against it.
But with the community, I definitely do fear losing that kind of touch with people. The very first tour that I’m trying to plan is like a dive bar tour, because I want to make sure that venues are small. I don’t know if I could ever handle playing a stadium; I love being on the floor, same level as people, looking them in the eyes, singing – not even singing to them, singing with them. I do fear losing that closeness with people if this project gets that big. But I guess I’ll just do what I can, you know, as much as I can handle.
You mentioned Lana earlier, which I wanted to touch on, because your aesthetic has been compared to hers. But as you yourself have talked about, even if there are similarities in terms of the ethereal sound or the nostalgic aesthetic, it’s kind of a superficial comparison, because she’s more associated with the glamour of the American Dream, whereas Ethel Cain stands on the opposite end of that, in a way. Could you elaborate a bit on that, and more generally what you think the message behind the project is?
First and foremost, I definitely was hugely inspired by Lana when I was in high school; Born to Die I think was the very first CD that I ever bought. At first when I listened to Born to Die I was like, “Wow, this is like this really good American Dream, it’s so glamorous, it’s like old Hollywood,” I loved it. But then as I got older, especially with the social justice movement and the unravelling of the American Dream, the unravelling of Hollywood, the unravelling of celebrity culture, it was kind of like, it’s all a sham. All that glamour and old opulence is built on the backs of hard-working people who will never get the recognition and it’s just a facade that you start to see through. That, coupled with stuff I saw growing up – it’s just not all sunshine and rainbows and roses and diamonds and whatnot, you know, it’s like, fucked up, it’s ugly. And I was like, “I don’t want to portray that, I don’t want to portray some kind of glamorous, beautiful persona. I want something that’s raw and freaky and scary because to me, that’s what America is.”
I know that your album is your passion project right now, but could you talk about what your headspace was like going into this new EP? Did you already have the album concept in mind?
The album has been fully written since before the EP started, so it was a completely separate project. It actually started off as an 80s throwback synthpop EP last February, and then COVID hit and I was like, “Everything sucks, I want to die.” [laughs] And so the sound of it completely changed. I was like, “Okay, I’m no longer feeling bright and bubbly synthpop,” I was like, “Misery! Suffering! Heavy guitar!” And so, it was a completely different EP up until November. I went down to Florida to visit my friend, Alex, formerly Yah Wave, who did ‘Knuckle Velvet’ with me on Golden Age. I went and stayed with him and we worked on the EP for a whole week, and then I went home back home to Indiana. And I was like, “I hate all of this, I literally hate it,” I scrapped the whole EP and I wrote the entire new EP in like three weeks; I wrote ‘Crush’ and ‘Unpunishable’ the same weekend, I wrote ‘Inbred’ and ‘Two-Headed Mother’ the next weekend.
So I started over from scratch, and… obviously, I am from Florida, this was my first winter in Indiana, and it was a very bitter, harsh winter of just sitting in my room in the middle of the night. It was freezing cold, I was listening to the wind howl outside my door, the snow was up to my waist, we couldn’t go anywhere. It’s green and sunny year-round in Florida, I was not used to being snowed in. And I was just sitting in my room and it was miserable. I was like, “There’s a pandemic, I’m snowed in, everything is miserable and dark,” and it was so, like, oppressively depressing. And I just sat in my room, playing that out into songs.
Inbred, to me, is very much a depiction of how 2020 went. It starts off with ‘Michelle Pfeiffer’ and ‘Crush’ and it’s very light and bouncy and bubbly, and it’s very split in the middle. It was almost like perfect timing; it was July 1, the very first day of the second half of 2020, I had to go to the hospital because I literally thought that I was like going to die, like I don’t know what was going on, but I had this crazy panic attack and I kept passing out, it was like all this crazy shit. And it really set the tone for the second half of 2020 for me, because I went from just kind of chilling during quarantine, spending time outside, and just everything was nice and sunshiny to like, immediately I was in the hospital, panic attack every single night, I had COVID, my physical health was just awful, I was getting ready to move out of state and leave all my family and friends behind, like all this crazy dramatic stuff was happening. And that’s why the second half of the EP is very dark and moody; I just wanted to capture that sonically.
It’s actually the next thing I wanted to bring up, how the EP is split in the middle. I mean, I couldn’t have imagined it was such a direct reflection of your experiences, and I’m sorry you had to go through all that stress, but you’ve definitely captured it sonically. And the rollout has been interesting as well, because if you’ve just been exposed to the first two singles, which are the first songs on the EP – they’re both great, but it does not prepare you for what’s about to come. With the third track, ‘God’s Country’– I mean, it’s eight minutes long, it’s a duet, the sound is ambitious, the lyrics are so evocative. Was embracing that bigger sound just a reflection of your headspace, or was it something that you always had in mind for the project?
Oh, yeah. I’ve always loved a louder sound. I’m so inspired by super lo-fi emotional music, and I always try to sit down and write something like that, but every time it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. As I sit and write it always starts off so small and quiet and very personal, but then as it goes, it’s like I literally can’t help it, I just get overwhelmed with emotion. As I get more into the headspace of writing, it just kind of all flows in until at the end of the song I’m just, like, screaming and yelling and wailing and it’s just this big crashing moment. And it’s definitely where my headspace was at – I remember right before the shit kind of hit the fan last summer, we were in the middle of lockdown, I couldn’t see my friends, I remember I was going out into these fields and into the woods and just these long stretches of fields and paths in the 100-degree weather and I would put my headphones in and I would listen to my own demos and I would run – I would run as fast as I could. I don’t even know why, I think it just felt good and that’s how it felt when I was making the music as well; I felt like I was just running, I don’t know what I was running from, I don’t know what I was running towards, it was just hot and I was delirious and it was just, like, a cacophony of everything that was happening in life. And that’s kind of what ‘God’s Country’ specifically was, I was like, “There’s a pandemic, I’m leaving my home, I’m getting older,” you know, I was overwhelmed and it just kind of came out in this explosion of a song. And I love to use a lot of reverb, I love to use a lot of big drums, I just want it to sound as big as possible, but it’s like, it’ll never be big enough, because how are you supposed to capture the expanse of human emotion and the world in a song? But like, “Goddamnit if I’m not trying to.”
That feeling, whether it’s running or listening to your demos or the finished product, is it like an emotional release for you?
No, it definitely was. With songs like ‘Head in the Wall’ and ‘Golden Age’, it’s kind of that moment especially when I perform live, I always put them at the end of the set and it’s just me on stage, eyes closed, and it’s like you’re letting out almost like a battle cry and it’s so cathartic because the music is loud and you’re surrounded by people, or you can be surrounded by no one at all, but no matter where you’re at, it’s just like, “This is it. This is just me and the world right now.” I don’t know how to describe it fully, it’s just this beautiful moment that when I close my eyes I just feel like I’m there in that field and the sun is beating down on me and I’m like, “Oh my god. This is what life is. This is what life is supposed to be. I could die right here and I would be happier than ever.” And I think there will always be an element on every release of mine that has a song that’s like that, where it’s like, “This is it. I’m letting go. This is… This is life.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Ethel Cain’s Inbred EP is out April 23 via Daughters of Cain.