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Into the Abyss with Ethel Cain

One of the most intriguing rising artists in pop found her freedom by inventing dark, twisted stories — and she’s got lots more to come

By Julyssa Lopez

Ethel Cain (Picture: Nedda Afsari)

Lately, for Silas Anhedönia, time feels like a slippery concept. If she’s not playing shows halfway across the world, she’s usually tucked away in her bedroom, a quiet hideaway in Pittsburgh with a sloped roof that doubles as a portal to another world.

Here, the hours glide by, one after the other. She might spend 12, 13, even 14 hours trapped inside, leaning over her computer, lost in the expansive sounds she’s creating. “You’ll get up at 9 a.m. to start working, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, what time is it?’ It’s 4 a.m. the next day,” she says. “But it’s fun — and insane and frustrating, and it makes me want to rip my hair out.” 

Getting into this private lair, where Anhedönia, 25, has lived since last fall, feels a little bit like navigating an M.C. Escher lithograph. From the outside, her house looks lean and narrow, but inside, staircases jut out of unexpected corners, rising higher and higher. Vintage heirlooms and random odds and ends are strewn about; there’s an entire wooden church pulpit she found, rustic little trunks plucked from thrift stores, a life-size cutout of Susan Sarandon. She’s created different versions of this home as she’s moved through different locales — a small house in Alabama last year, a former church in Indiana before that — each taking on the haunted, magical quality of antique emporiums filled with esoteric artifacts. People tend to be fascinated by Anhedönia’s things, and she likes showing them off: all these sundry bits of the life she’s built while breaking through as Ethel Cain, one of the most intriguing pop artists of the past couple of years.

Anhedönia has been getting more acquainted with Ethel Cain, the character whose story she’s been tracing across multiple projects since 2018, and whose background she plans to explore further on an EP planned for later this year. Listeners first got to know the full, tragic arc she had in mind on her 2022 debut album, Preacher’s Daughter — a stunning release that showed Anhedönia’s atmospheric production and her knack for Southern Gothic imagery and intense themes, like religious indoctrination, sexual violence, isolation, and family trauma. 

Ethel Cain is a work of fiction, one that first came to Anhedönia on “A House in Nebraska,” a spine-tingling song she wrote at age 19. Ethel and her creator share a lot in common. Both are women who took off on their own, leaving their oppressive Christian communities: Ethel grew up in Alabama, while Anhedönia herself came from a rural town in Florida called Perry, where she was home-schooled and brought up Baptist. But Anhedönia takes Ethel into much darker terrain from there on Preacher’s Daughter, having the character grapple with abuse at the hands of her father as she treks out west, where she encounters drugs, sex work, and dangerous men — until eventually she’s kidnapped, killed, and cannibalized. 

It’s a violent, fatalist plot told over dazed pianos and dramatic blasts of distortion, Anhedönia’s voice often steady and dreamlike even at cruel turns. She’d long looked up to artists like Lana Del Rey, Marina, and Florence + the Machine, and her debut album feels like a twisted collage of those references playing over a feverish Donald Ray Pollock novel — he’s one of her favorite writers, along with others in the Southern Gothic canon. The EP she’s working on now covers Ethel’s high school years. Anhedönia says she envisions it as another chapter to a longer story she’s been telling: “I feel like this is truly laying Ethel Cain to rest.”

One Saturday afternoon in June, she takes a few hours off from wrapping up Ethel’s story and steps outside, barefaced and relaxed, to Double Wide Grill, a diner built inside a vintage gas station. I see her before she enters the restaurant: From across the street, she fits right into the industrial town she moved into last October, casual in black cargo pants and an oversize crop top with a wolf on it. It’s a little different from her aesthetic as Ethel, which is often distinguished by frilly white Edwardian dresses, or the high fashion she’s shown off in runway shows for Eckhaus Latta, Miu Miu, and Givenchy. And yet, it makes sense, given Anhedönia’s ever-changing style. “If I had to describe it in a silly way, I would say there’s three people living in my body,” she jokes. “There’s a punk-ass 16-year-old boy who lives with his grandma, the grandma that he lives with, and then the demon that lives in their basement.” 

She’s catching up after touring a lot this summer, having just knocked out several dates in Australia shortly after making her Coachella debut. Her sets are heavy with emotion; fans sometimes leave in tears, feeling intimately connected to the wrenching isolation at the heart of her songs. On social media, they call her Mother and talk about the closeness they feel with her, in an echo of her own origin story. Growing up in Florida, she recalls sneaking onto the internet behind her parents’ backs, before eventually discovering Tumblr communities that changed her life and developing the internet fluency that has made her a cult figure.

But part of her appeal is that she doesn’t seem all that interested in stardom. She’d prefer to spend time hidden away making things; all those shows take a lot out of her. A few weeks before we hang out, she made headlines for collapsing onstage at the Sydney Opera House. “I don’t like performing,” she confesses plainly. “Maybe someday, if I can figure out a way that I can perform that is better for me, but the standard setup of, ‘Go out, be in front of a bunch of people’ — I don’t like to be in front of a bunch of people. I don’t like to be the center of attention 100 percent.”

As her fame expanded, Anhedönia found herself in an obsessive scrolling cycle, checking social media constantly to see what people were saying. She recently decided to leave the internet behind for a while. “I just deleted all my Twitter accounts, deactivated even my personal Instagram,” she says. “I gave my password to my main Instagram to my manager. I said, ‘Don’t give this back to me.’ It’s an addiction. It’s literally like alcohol or drugs.”

Instead, she’s been diving into books, revisiting the dark plots of Flannery O’Connor and Gillian Flynn. (She happened to be reading Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God the day that he passed away this summer.) And to keep her hands busy, she’s been embroidering, a hobby that’s kept her from getting more tattoos, which already cover her hands and forehead. She has the names of Ashmedai and Gabriel, a demon and archangel from the Bible, written in Hebrew along either side of her hairline, and the word “please” etched on her neck. That one happened during a drunk, high night alone one Tuesday, sketched out in front of a mirror. “I remember the head space I was in; it was very kind of pleading, almost,” she says. “Also, I thought, ‘My mother, as appalled as she will be that I have a neck tattoo, will love that I have my manners in clear, full view of everyone.’ ”

But mostly, when she’s not reading, embroidering, or on the road, she’s making music. “I almost resent touring sometimes,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Let me go home. I need to sink into my hole.’ Let it come to me, and then create.” That’s why after a while, when we’re done picking at our fries, Anhedönia guides me through a few sunbaked Pittsburgh streets and leads me up to her room. We sit on her floor, where she plays some of her intricate new songs. There’s one that starts with a diaphanous piano melody and then dives into a crash of guitars. Another one is more than 20 minutes long. 

(Picture: Nedda Afsari)

Later, she shows me a playlist that’s been guiding her through the music. It’s filled with ambient masterminds — Brian Eno, Explosions in the Sky, Grouper, and William Basinski, the composer known for his Disintegration Loops series, made up of decaying tapes he found and let slowly crumble. Anhedönia, too, has been plunging into her own songs, chasing inspirations before they disappear.

ANHEDÖNIA IS ONE of those rare people who can access crisp, sharp memories from her early childhood, recalling senses and images as far back as when she was two. “I remember swinging on the tire swing at my mimi and pop’s house,” she says. “I remember just lots of time outdoors. I remember there was a very specific way that it feels to listen to a streetlight hum — those old, I guess fluorescent ones — and the way that they look glowing through the leaves of an oak tree.… I remember the way it felt to stand in a dank shed and smell that powdery dirt that’s in Florida. Just the way that it felt to be a child and try to make sense of things.” Imagery from those days still trickles into her lyrics, often painting an ominous but vivid picture of the South. “It’s so hard when you try to represent the South because there’s so much just straight-up depravity and kind of human insanity, but there’s also really beautiful parts,” she says, sounding not unlike O’Connor herself.

Her father was a deacon at the Baptist church in their community; her mother, a convert, took her newfound religion very seriously, she says. Anhedönia remembers how she and her three siblings would gather at the kitchen table every morning for lessons from their mother. During their free time, they weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. Instead, she grew up singing in church, absorbing choir music, and playing piano.

There was one part of secular culture that Anhedönia recalls being allowed to explore: horror movies, which she watched at her grandparents’ house. “I was really anxious and scared of everything. And so my pop, in all his wisdom, decided I should come spend the night and watch every R-rated horror movie that he had.” They’d go to Walmart and buy a Betty Crocker cake with strawberry icing to eat while they watched The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, or the Final Destination series. “He was like, ‘Watch this, you won’t be scared anymore,’ ” Anhedönia says.

But slowly, real-world uncertainties began to set in. Anhedönia says she’d always understood, somewhere deep inside of her, that she felt an attraction to both sexes. “I had crushes on girls, I had crushes on boys,” she says. “And I didn’t even really know what that meant.” Her neighborhood was small and full of old ladies, as she describes it, and she’d noticed that people treated one of her neighbors, a gay man who lived in town, differently. “I started to get this inkling in my head at some point as I was approaching adolescence, like, ‘Is that not allowed?’ ” So when she was about 11 years old, she turned to her parents with an innocent query. “I thought I was just going to be like, ‘Hey … I have a question.’ ” This is often painted as Anhedönia’s coming-out story, but the truth is, she was just a kid asking about something she didn’t fully understand. “I was like, ‘I think I like boys.’ ” 

In a community obsessed with upholding puritanical ideals they believed would keep the devil at bay, all hell broke loose, she says. Families from her church would tell her mom that Anhedönia couldn’t play with their kids. Her parents sent her to therapy. Her life grew even lonelier and darker, cascading into several years that she now says she hardly remembers — in between home-school lessons, she spent most of her time in bed with the curtains drawn. “Living in that environment, you just want to get out of it,” she says. “I remember just kind of locking away parts of myself and thinking, ‘You’re going to wake up, you’re going to eat, you’re going to deal with whatever happens today, you’re going to go to sleep, and then you’re going to keep doing that until this is over.’ ”

At 16, she started taking classes at a community college, then went to school to become a nail technician at 18. By then, she’d flown out the door and started living on her own in Tallahassee, indulging in her new freedom. She experimented with acid, opioids, Xanax, meth once. “When you come from such an oppressive upbringing, you tend to spiral for a moment,” she admits. It was right around then that the idea of Ethel Cain began blossoming in her mind.

She found other answers, too. “It wasn’t until I was nearing adulthood when I discovered what being trans was, through Tumblr of all places,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know you could do that. I didn’t know that was a thing.” Up until then, her church had told her she was gay. The actual identity she came to understand for herself “wasn’t even in the conversation in any way,” she continues. “Wrong letter.” 

Anhedönia is careful when she talks about being trans, emphasizing that her gender identity is only one fact in a complex personality. “When you are trans, you are living a very specific experience that not many other people in the world have,” she says. “I wanted to not be known as a trans artist, I think, not because I didn’t want people to know I was trans, or because I didn’t want to be proud of that fact, but.… It has shaped the way that I am in certain ways, but it’s not everything.” 

She shared the news with her sister when she was 20, posted about it on Facebook, and simply told her mother she was starting hormone therapy. It was a more straightforward conversation than the one she’d had at age 11, and she was met with far more support. Even now, Anhedönia is cautious about revealing her past, aware that people conflate the darkness of her fiction with her real life. She’s also protective of her family, who she’s in a much better place with: All of them have left the church at this point, though several are still religious in their own ways. 

“I always toe the line of not wanting to dredge it up,” she says. “But I get so caught up in the fantasy and the fun of making a story that I forget that there are real-world reasons that I do what I do.”

WHEN ANHEDÖNIA BEGAN uploading her music online, she connected with musicians like the singer-songwriter Nicole Dollanganger, known for nightmarish-dream pop, and Lil Aaron, a rapper who also grew up in a deeply Christian family. She opened for Dollanganger and gained followers with songs like the gossamer-light “Bruises.” Then Lil Aaron introduced her to some people at a publishing company called Prescription Songs. It was the middle of the pandemic, and she says she’d just lost her job doing nails in Tallahassee. The company offered her a deal, and Anhedönia took it — connecting her on paper to Prescription Songs’ owner, Dr. Luke, the producer Kesha accused of rape, psychological torment, and emotional abuse in a lawsuit she filed in 2014. (He vehemently denied her claims and countersued for defamation; Kesha’s cases were all dropped or dismissed, and this June, after a decade-long court battle, they reached a settlement in which Kesha said that “only God knows what happened that night.”)

Anhedönia knew who Dr. Luke was, but she says she wasn’t fully aware that he ran Prescription when she first signed. “I didn’t do a lot of digging until way further down the line,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh.’ ” Once she knew, she continues, “I just decided, ‘I’m here now and can’t really go anywhere for a while. So I’m just going to mind my business and make my music.’ But if I had my choice, I would much prefer to do business with somebody else. I’ll just say that.” 

The Prescription Songs deal came during a desperate time for her. “I was broke,” she says. “I was literally going to the hospital because I was malnourished, and I was passing out all the time. My landlord was sending me angry texts every day because I was behind on rent. I was like, ‘I need money,’ and I signed.”

She emphasises that she’s been in charge of the creative process for everything she’s released through Prescription. (Dr. Luke isn’t credited on any of her songs.) For now, she’s focused on finishing the next few releases she needs to fulfill her contract. “We’re almost out,” she says. “But yeah, if I could go back in time and do it differently, I probably wouldn’t put my name on that paper.”

There’s a sense in which it’s hard to imagine Anhedönia being contained by any music-business paperwork, because of just how expansive her imagination is, and just how much she wants to do. Before Ethel Cain came to her, she’d been sketching out three characters: Teddy, an androgynous altar boy with a vigilante streak; Salem, a woodsy witch with long white hair; and Carter, a time-traveler with a portal in his basement. Then Ethel Cain came along. “I knew it was going to be music, but I was like, ‘Can I write a story? Can I make a film? I want to draw this,’ ” she says. “I’m so obsessed with this story. I want to tell it in a million different ways.” 

Later this year, she plans to leave Pittsburgh. She’s chasing brutal winters to match the tone of her next full-length album, which she describes as dark and cold. It’ll focus on the story behind Ethel’s mother, and see her grappling with her daughter’s death. The one after that will dive into Ethel’s grandmother.

There are other characters lurking in her head, waiting to come out — but she still thinks she has a lot of time to spend with the Cain women, and a long time before she reaches the end of the story. “This is going to be 15, 20 years from now,” she says. “I work very slow. That’s how I like it.” 

From Rolling Stone US.