If you journey through the Bible Belt to Florida, you might encounter Perry, a town located in Taylor County. In the rural panhandle a track and field is merely concrete and gravel poured in an oval shape over a grass plane. This is where Hayden Anhedönia, the mastermind behind Ethel Cain, grew up. Raised in the Southern Baptist church, Ethel lived her whole life believing she was a sin. After coming out as gay to her family, she left the church at sixteen years old. But her church-deacon father had brought her to the church choir when she was a young child, sparking a love of music.
For better or for worse, without the church, the story of Ethel Cain would never be told.
Ethel Cain, Anhedönia’s stage name, first appeared to her one night while working on music. In a Vogue article, she says that she “found herself possessed by a woman named Ethel Cain.”
Thus, Ethel Cain was born. Her story album Preacher’s Daughter was a four-year project. Between 2018 and 2022, Cain released music as a form of world-building for the character Ethel Cain.
The setting is Shady Grove in rural Alabama, in 1991, a decade after the death of her father, Rev. Joseph Cain, the titular town preacher. The story begins with the intro track “Family Tree (Intro).” The distorted voice of her father leading a church service is the first sound on the album. The lyrics proceeding are the exposition to set the story: “Jesus can always reject his father/ But He cannot escape his mother’s blood.”
Religious trauma is the album’s main theme. It drives Cain to escape the town she grew up in and abandon her church responsibilities. The mortality of her mother’s blood will eventually wash away, but the divinity of her father will stick with her till death.
Track two, “American Teenager,” is the most upbeat song on the album, despite its depressing lyrics. In an interview with Pitchfork, Cain expressed how “American Teenager” is an ode to the frustration that every teenager feels when they are told that they are the ones who can change the world. In reality, they can’t, because the circumstances given to them at birth have predetermined their fate.
“The neighbor’s brother came home in a box/ But he wanted to go/ Maybe it was his fault.” Not only serving as an anti-war anthem, this song carries out the message stated in the intro that she cannot escape her mother’s blood, bound to become just another pile of ashes resting above, or inside a fireplace. “Say what you want, but say it like you mean it/ With your fists for once/ A long cold war/ with your kids at the front.”
Comparing the kids America sent off to die on the battlefield to the kids who suffer abuse from their parents highlights another of the album’s themes: intergenerational trauma. “Jesus, if you’re listening, let me handle my liquor/And Jesus, if you’re there, why do I feel so alone in this room with you?” Whether the abuse comes from the hands of drunk parents or the church itself, it is essential to the cycles of despair that prevent American teenagers from going off and actually making something of themselves.
The pillar Preacher’s Daughter was composed around is track three, “A House In Nebraska.” Originally created and composed on GarageBand, Ethel Cain fell in love with a piano sample she found while browsing through sounds for the Preacher’s Daughter project. While sitting on her bedroom floor in Florida, she had the entire song figured out.
“The song just wrote itself in, like, 20 minutes,” she told W Magazine. It is a ballad of past lives and past lovers. “I saw Nebraska as the center of America…It was this empty place that I would imagine myself running away to someday, being completely alone with the love of my life forever. It’s heaven on earth—you’ll never be bothered again.”
Cain expresses her desire to run away from her life in Alabama, back to the house in Nebraska where she would sleep on a dirty mattress on the second floor of a wood cabin. “Where you told me that even if we died tonight, that I’d die yours/ (So I died there under you every night, all night).” She longs for her past lover, reminiscing the nights she spent as “his.” Furthermore, the use of the words “died” and “under you” implies breaking of religious beliefs about virginity and purity. “A House In Nebraska” ends with an instrumental turmoil of muddled piano and guitar chords and a heavy reverb. The emotional turmoil expressed through the hot and heavy guitar and piano sound is a portrayal of heartbreak and unrequited love. Furthermore, the use of reverb is a sonic metaphor that highlights the fact that after their relationship has ended, Cain can still hear the beat of his heart even though it stopped beating for her.
As the story progresses, Cain falls in love with an abusive partner in the song “Western Nights.” She first meets him in the parking lot of a bar on his Harley Davidson. The two indulge in dangerous activities such as robbing ATMs and getting into fights. “I watched him show his love through shades of black and blue…/ The neighbors beat on the walls while I’m face down in the bed.” The love that she has for him is tainted. As she suffers from an abusive partner, she begins to isolate herself from everyone. “I’d hold the gun if you asked me to/ But if you love me like you say you do /Would you ask me to?”
Still desperately trying to attach herself to anything but the church, she is willing to go to the end of the line for him.
This personal line reveals her struggle with gender dysphoria and talks about having to hide her bones—her anatomical structure—from her lover, father, and the church.
Cain and her boyfriend drive across state lines on a road trip to a chapel to get married. Previously, in “Family Tree (Intro)” the lyrics read “Swinging by my neck from the family tree.” Now, a more experienced Cain sings “Take the noose, off wrap it tight around my hand.” In “Family Tree,” Cain starts to take control of her fate. She has abandoned her home town to live a hedonistic, criminal life with her now-husband. In a bank robbery gone wrong, her lover is killed and she is left to grieve his death alone.
“Let Christ forgive these bones I’ve been hiding/And the bones I’m about to leave.” Here, she confesses to Jeasus Christ and God that she has sinned, but she does not feel any remorse at all. The bones she will soon be hiding are the body and crimes of her deceased husband.
Like Hayden Anhedönia, the character Ethel Cain is a trans woman. This personal line reveals her struggle with gender dysphoria and talks about having to hide her bones—her anatomical structure—from her lover, father, and the church.
The finale of Act One, “Hard Times,” is a song of reflection. Cain sings a song of her childhood. She tells of a child who loved her father in spite of the ways he loved her. “Hide me there/Under the leaves.” Hidden under a bush or in her bed, her father would molest her. The line “Nine, going on eighteen/Lay it on me” shows the ways in which she was forced to grow up at such a young age. At nine years old, she had to bear the weight of the abuse her father put her through.
“Tell me a story/About how it ends/ Where you’re still the good guy/ I’ll make pretend.” The telling of stories interpolates the way that Ethel Cain might have asked her father to tell her a story before bed. Additionally, this signifies how in most cases of child sexual abuse (CSA), the victim is often too young to understand why that instance just happened and as a trauma response, they put their faith in make believe. “Cause I hate this story/Where happiness ends/And dies with you.” Her childhood died alongside her father.
A father who is supposed to provide joy for their child has instead taken the joy out of his daughter’s childhood. Cain is left with a shell of a childhood, filled with the stories of how great a preacher her father was, and all the good that he had brought the community. If she were to speak up about what her father had done to her, chances are nobody would believe her, as it is psychologically hard to believe that a person you look up to and trust was capable of committing such sin. Worse, she would be ostracized by the community for blaspheming her father’s name.
“On my birthday/ You watched me/ Dancing right there in the grass/ I was too young to notice/ That some types of love could be bad.” As the song continues, Cain sings about her birthday where instead of looking on to her in love and affection, her father preys upon her, watching her with lust. This childhood trauma brings to light the pattern of sexual assault at the hands of the church that plague the nation’s youth. When one preaches Leviticus 20:13, yet goes home and rapes their son, the child is left to cary their father’s sin with them their whole life. This is what drove Ethel Cain to escape the church, escape her rural community in Alabama, and find a man who would treat her with the love and care she was denied by her father. Yet intergenerational trauma repeated itself through Cain’s abusive relationship with her husband. Trauma only breeds trauma, as someone who never learned what a healthy relationship looks like isn’t able to see the signs of an abusive relationship.
As Pitchfork puts it: “Ethel Cain’s Preachers Daughter encapsulates roiling gloom and smoldering Americana.”
This album is the culmination of all the things you were never taught about on the road to the American Dream.