It’s a Saturday morning in West London and the winter sun has painted everything in a crystalline hue. Groups of families are ice skating on one of those pop-up outdoor rinks. Flocks of frantic shoppers are jostling past each other towards Westfield shopping centre. Christmas music is playing literally everywhere. Fake snow is floating across the air, some of it landing in my mouth as I bolt towards Flippers Roller Boogie Palace, London’s new indoor rollerskating rink. I’m (literally) running late for my date with Hayden Silas Anhedönia – better known by her stage name, Ethel Cain. When I arrive, I learn that Hayden’s running late, too. Thank god.
Hayden arrives a few minutes after me, dressed casually in black jeans and a grey jumper with a stag’s head on it. She puts her skates on with the casual ease of someone who has definitely done this before (she admits it’s a hobby of hers), as I struggle to do up my own. Once in the rink, she glides with mastery with her long hair floating ethereally behind her. She also manages to effortlessly dodge the children falling all over the place who make the whole place feel like IRL Mario Kart run on Hard Mode. Again, I question how, seriously how, has she not fallen on her arse yet. “It only happens when I get cocky,” she jokes.
On the day we meet, Hayden has just finished the European leg of her tour. The past few weeks have been packed with shows, interviews and photoshoots and she can’t wait to go home – Pittsburgh, USA, currently. It’s not that she doesn’t like Europe – she tells me she would love to spend more time in Berlin – but that navigating Europe is like “playing The Sims on a new save” and she would prefer to know where her nearest Walmart is at all times. “I’m a creature of habit,” she says.
Her admission makes sense. Ethel Cain is an American artist through and through. She explores themes of patriotism, poverty, religion and the Southern Gothic in her music. To place her in the backdrop of anywhere else would be like trying to plant a seed in cement.
Ethel’s ambitious debut concept album Preacher’s Daughter, which came out back in May, begins at the end of her life, placing her as the protagonist among a group of depraved lovers, friends and family members. It follows Ethel’s search for love and meaning as she leaves home in the deep American South, ultimately ending in her violent death at the hands of a cannibalistic lover. The album demonstrates Hayden’s knack for rich storytelling and world building, pulling listeners into her strange and immersive solar system (it also includes easily one of the best pop songs of the year, “American Teenager”).
Hayden grew up in a Southern Baptist household in the panhandle of Florida, coming out as gay when she was 12, later leaving the church at 16 and coming out as a transgender woman four years later. Her raw honesty and ability to tackle challenging topics has drawn in a mass cult following of queers, goths, emos and people with deep-rooted religious trauma who all call her Mother (or “Meemaw”). She essentially sits in the middle of a Venn diagram that would otherwise be reserved for horror movies, or like, BDSM. Her pop melodies, anthemic Springsteen-like choruses and soaring vocals have captured the attention of a devoted fanbase, fashion houses and even her favourite artist, Florence Welch, who she recently supported on tour. Ethel Cain is truly a mammoth pop star in the making – she’s Lana Del Rey for people whose Taylor Swift is Phoebe Bridgers.
So it’s very exciting to chat to Hayden at this point – in the moments before she’s way too famous to do things like go rollerskating with us. Doing the interview on wheels among the children and early 2000s pop music blaring over the speakers is obviously an impossible feat, so we relocate to Flipper’s diner to chat about dating, love and cannibalism. You know, just girly things.
VICE: Hi Hayden, how did you find our first date?
Hayden Silas Anhedönia, AKA Ethel Cain: It was amazing. I love roller skating.
What is your ideal first date?
My ideal first date would probably be going on a hike or on a trail, like somewhere really far away. Because first of all, I need to make sure you’re someone that will go out into the woods with me, and second of all I like the idea of just getting away from everything. Also, it would have to be with someone who doesn’t mind not having a say in it. Like, you don’t get a say – we’re going out into the woods.
That sounds quite romantic. Would you class yourself as a romantic?Ideally I would like to be a romantic, but realistically I’m very cynical about it. I love to daydream about it, like going on dates in my head, like “Wow, that would be so fun!” And then I like, never go on dates with anyone. I like to believe that it does exist, and I can be quite emotional but like, don’t call me pet names, don’t be all sappy. I just love to sit with someone in silence. I love to just be next to each other and not have to do anything.
Yeah, like “parallel playing”.
Exactly. I love just watching movies, or long car rides in silence. I love just being close to someone. I love the proximity.
What do you think your love language is?
I love doing things for people. I’m not really good at telling people that I love them, but I love doing things or giving gifts. It feels good doing things for people that make me happy and feel loved and appreciated. And then if they’re like “Oh my god, thank you so much!” I’m like “Shh! Be quiet!”
Cute. So, you’re quite online. Have you ever given internet dating a go?
I’ve only ever done it. I think I get so afraid of people in real life and I think I’ve realised I like to hide behind a screen and it’s easier for me to talk to people about things compared to like, face to face. And then as soon as I meet them face to face I’m like “I can’t do this”, and then I back out and hurt people’s feelings and it’s really bad! I’m trying to figure out how to do it. I’m not very good at it.
I’m not sure if anyone is, to be honest! I wonder if you and I are astrologically compatible. What’s your big three?
I don’t know that much about astrology at all but I have memorised my big three because my best friend is really into it and she told me I have the chart of the Antichrist: Aries Sun, Aquarius Moon, Scorpio Rising.
Interesting. I’m also an Aries sun! [our Cokes arrive].
Oh my god, I normally can’t drink caffeine because it tweaks me out, but I’m so tired today.
Why are you so tired?
Jet lag, I keep waking up after like two hours, so I’ve just been watching TV.
RIP. What are you watching at the moment?
I’m on Season 3 of One Tree Hill. I’ve got the boxset on DVD, but I’ve been watching it a lot and getting inspired for the next project. I love the early 2000s Christian rock, like, emo pop rock. Like The Fray and Switchfoot, it’s all I could listen to as a kid.
Yes, Switchfoot! What other music were you into as a kid?
Mostly just that. It’s all I could listen to. I was raised super Christian, my mom wouldn’t let us listen to anything that wasn’t about God, or at least passed off as being about God, so that’s all we had. And then like, choir stuff and Gregorian chants and New Age stuff.
So how old were you when you discovered pop music?
I think when I just started high school, so I was like 12 or 13. I think the first pop song I ever heard was “Hot n Cold” by Katy Perry or “Alejandro” by Lady Gaga on the radio. I was like, “Oh my god, I didn’t realise music could sound like this!” And then later I discovered the indie/alternative side of pop music like Daughter, Imogen Heap, BANKS, and then I was like, “That’s what I want to make.”
Who are you listening to at the moment?
The Bones And All soundtrack, Brian Eno, The Fray, Bryan Adams, Sarah McLochlan, Lighthouse, Avril Lavigne, Goo Goo Dolls, you know, all those classic acts from the 2000s. And Grouper, of course. Grouper always and forever. All of these are kind of inspo for the next album.
Oooh, and what is the moodboard for the next album?
So I can’t say too much about it, but it’s colder, it’s not like that sweaty heap of the Ethel Cain trilogy, it’s very cold, very bleak, and it’s gonna be fun. Maybe less punishing than Preacher’s Daughter is. It’ll appeal to a different audience, so I’m excited to explore a new sound.
Sounds great. Unrelated, but who’s your dream blunt rotation?
So someone just asked me this on Tumblr and I think I said Elmo, Susan Sarandon and that girl from that video online that looks like Shailene Woodley who’s doing that old lady’s hair and the old lady tries to hit her and then she’s like “Ew, that was a lot Robin.” That’s my favourite video at the moment.
Nice. I feel like Elmo would green me out, though.
Elmo’s crazy. I was talking to my friend about this and we decided that Elmo was actually a Cenobite from Hellraiser and keeps Mr. Noodle trapped in a hell dimension in that room that he can’t leave. Elmo gives Cenobite vibes. I feel like if you were to peel off that puppet skin, he’s got pins in his head. Actually, I think Elmo’s nonbinary. I know that canonically he’s supposed to be a boy, but…
Yeah, he gives he/they.
Yeah, just like Piglet gives he/they, for sure. But then, I think Piglet might just be straight up they/them. Winnie the Pooh’s a boy, Kanga’s a girl, Piglet is just Piglet.
Definitely. Do you think anyone from Winnie the Pooh is trans? Because Tigger kind of has t-boy swag.
Yeah but Rabbit gives trans elder vibes, and is kind of crotchety but also loves everyone.
Okay, fuck/marry/kill: Pinhead, Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers.
Kill Freddy Krueger, total paedo — canonically. Fuck Michael Myers, just because he’s kinda hunky. And then, I feel like marriage to Pinhead would be very stable, especially the new girl Pinhead. Like, girl Pinhead would be a good wife. So yeah. That’s the only appropriate answer.
I wanted to talk to you about cannibalism. What influenced the cannibalism trope on Preachers Daughter?
Ugh, my favourite! So, when I was a kid I had this vivid imaginary scenario, like, when you’re a kid and you don’t know what sex is and you have these crushes on people that you can’t explain, there’s this need for physical intimacy that you can’t explain away with sex, so I would always imagine that I wanted to open myself up and pull someone into me and devour them. I felt like I had to put people inside of me to love them. I was so little imagining this. I think cannibalism itself is crazy and it’s not anything new, but I think there’s a similarity between cannibalism and not being able to get someone that you love close enough to you so you have to literally devour them, and that’s still not close enough.
I just love the romantic implications of the desperation of getting someone so close to you that you have to devour them. I think this new rise of cannibalism in media – Satanic panic aside – is such an act of devotion, metaphorically. Which is so beautiful! Before I even knew what intimacy was like as a child I was like, “I have to eat people.” So then you pair that with the gritty true crime vibe that all the indie girls love to have and there’s such a romantic factor and aspect of desperation. It’s so bad, but love that is healthy is so good, and so unappealing, to me, at least. Which is probably why I’m so bad at dating. If it’s not driving me crazy, then I’m like “This is no good.” I have to want to eat you. If I don’t want to eat you, then it’s not real love.
So true, bestie. Can we expect any more cannibalism from Ethel in the future?
Not cannibalism, per se. Maybe outside of Ethel. Like, we haven’t even scratched the surface of female rage just quite yet. Because Ethel, the daughter, is definitely the victim and the unfortunate sacrifice, but we haven’t even gotten into the boss lady yet, the bloodshed is coming. It’s not from the daughter but it is in the family tree and it is in the bloodline, so it’s coming and I’m really excited.
Everyone’s always like “We love the record but we wish it was less indie pop, we want it to be more like ‘Ptolemaea’,” but for Ethel it didn’t make sense because she was a teenager in the 90s, she wants to have a good time and is sad and desperate and kind of weak, honestly. But the darkness, grittiness, anger and frenetic female rage is coming.
It wasn’t right for this album, but it’s coming, in full. I can’t wait to get to the darkest story, which is coming.
I can’t wait. Thanks, Hayden.