By Natalie Mintz
If someone wants to know what it feels like to grow up queer in rural Appalachia, they should listen to Ethel Cain. Her music sounds like the sonic embodiment of religious-based trauma. Born in Tallahassee, Florida, Hayden Anhedönia is the woman behind the name of Ethel Cain. Openly transgender, she has spoken about the issues she faced growing up in the Southern Baptist Church. If this sounds heavy, it’s because her music certainly contains some bleak themes. The protagonist of her debut album, “Preacher’s Daughter,” escapes a strict religious family only to find “love” in a man who continues the cycle of abuse she has been stuck in. The album is a story of isolation and generational trauma – how we are often left “swinging from the family tree.” However, it is a story that invites its listener to make peace with where they have
come from–and break free of the framework that controls their lives. The audience is expected to learn from the mistakes of the protagonist.
On her “Freezer Bride” tour, Anhedönia brought the story of Ethel Cain to the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina. The sold out venue was packed full of girls with perfectly applied eyeliner and dyed hair. A girl in the back corner had on a full-length lace gown with sets of pearls around her neck. The city of Asheville is surrounded by rural towns in the middle of the Appalachian mountains. That, plus the barn-like feel of the venue only served to enhance the message of the music.
The unreleased opening track entitled “Dust Bowl” portrays young lovers doomed to fail at love and life. The pair might be in love, but that won’t be enough to sustain them. When Anhedönia describes the couple “smoking the shit” the “blood stained” boy’s dad “smoked in Vietnam” live, the bass reverberates off the wooden walls of the venue. It’s a fantastic way of placing the audience in the story–where her imagery, at times, uncomfortably, brings the listener across America with Ethel.
After setting her scene, she moves into “American Teenager.” Newly released as a single, this is one of the only upbeat songs on the album–but it certainly does not deviate from the theme. The song starts with the story of a boy in Ethel’s neighborhood being brought back to his family “in a box.” Perhaps the most explicit deconstruction of the stereotypical American family, this song explores the disenfranchisement felt by younger generations. Ethel claims that she has “put too much faith in the make believe.” This song sees her beginning to question everything–including religion. The song also emphasizes the protagonist’s desire to “do what she wants” and do it for her–a sentiment echoed back to Anhedönia by the crowd during the show.
In the break between “American Teenager” and the next song “A House in Nebraska,” someone in the audience passed her a tiny rubber chicken. She commented that this actually wasn’t the first time someone has given her one of these on tour. She was also passed a rubber duck after “A House in Nebraska.”
In this song, Ethel laments the loss of a former love. She is stuck thinking about the house the two shared, before she drove him away. To her, this is the worst part–to know that she is the “reason he won’t come home.” She pushed him away, and the loneliness has left her vulnerable to the abuse she is about to face.
The dichotomy of Anhedönia audience interactions and storytelling makes her even more compelling. Instead of relying on her characters to explain who she is, she managed to craft an actual relationship between herself and her audience. She is–as much as an artist can be–accessible. Following in queer tradition, she’s also branded herself as “mother,” something shouted from the crowd at several moments during her set.
In the next song, “Family Tree,” the audience is brought to the turning point in the album. Ethel is reminded of her childhood in the “crosses on her body,” but she is preparing to leave home. Next up in the set is “Hard Times,” in which Ethel, now out of her family home, recounts the abuse of her father. It’s important to note that she loves him anyway–as a child “will always need their daddy.” This unyielding love she has for her father is eerily mirrored in her romantic relationships.
“Hard Times” is Followed by “Sun Bleached Flies.”
This song details the events following Ethel’s murder at the hands of the man she has run away with. She is looking down at her family from Heaven – trying to make peace with what was done to her, and what she had to do. She wishes she could go back to how her life was before, where she could be “in church that Sunday.” This wish is soon followed by the realization that God doesn’t love her enough to save her from the pain she’s felt. Instead, she is resigned to taking care of herself.
After “Sun Bleached Flies,” came “Thoroughfare,” which flashes back to before Ethel was killed. She has just met the final man in her journey, and Anhedönia is inviting the crowd to “see the west” with her characters. Ethel, now alone, agrees to trust the man who offers her a ride–claiming he is “looking for love” in the west. Her instincts were right, even if she does not heed them. Just as she is beginning to believe in love, he becomes just like all the other men she’s known.
Understandably not present in her live show is the nine minute long song “Ptolemaea.” It’s at this point where Ethel becomes engulfed in her pain. Spiraling into madness, she sings “I’ve had enough” until she cannot take it anymore – screaming “make it stop.” This song also provides a clear description of the storyline. In a faded voice, a narrator reads: “Blessed be the Daughters of Cain, bound to suffering eternal through the sins of their father committed long before their conception.”
Pivoting from the material on her new album, she then introduces “Crush,” much to the excitement of the audience. Released on the EP “Inbred” in 2021, “Crush” details a lover that “works with his hands” and “smells like Marlboro Reds.” Like much of her music, the song relays the story of small town romance.
Anhedönia has faced criticism for her use of rural and religious imagery in her work–since it can lead to misinterpretations and romanticization of the lifestyle and beliefs she is trying to criticize. In an Instagram livestream, she admitted that she has thought about that before–and has always planned to move past it for future albums. She is aware of how many people have been harmed by conservative communities, both social and religious. However, it’s worth mentioning that a story as heart-wrenching as that of Ethel Cain does not really come across as romantic.
Anhedönia ends the show after “Crush,” well, not really. She comes back a few minutes later for an encore. This is an acapella version of the song “Strangers.” Ethel addresses her mother here. She struggles to deal with the pain she has put her through. She tells her mother not to think too much about her, or she’ll “never sleep a wink again.” With this being her final letter to the world, she also thinks about the man who has murdered her. Having literally been consumed by him, she asks him if she is “turning in his stomach, making him sick.” One of the most poignant moments of her show comes during this song: the crowd singing along to “I’ve always tried to be
good, am I no good.”
The end of “Preacher’s Daughter” brings the ascension of the main character into Heaven. By the end of the show, it’s easy to feel like you, too, have ascended but for a totally different reason than Ethel. You’ve come to a place where, instead of finding the same kind of pain you’re running from, you’re in a room of people who have escaped it with you–or, perhaps, are trying to.