The Southern-born popstar isn’t interested in escaping her upbringing—instead, she’s bringing everyone else into her world

Growing up in a small town in the South, there was one phrase that Hayden Anhedönia heard often: “Be sure your sin will find you out.” As a six-year-old, she spent her afternoons hiding in the bathroom after church, terrified of the judgment of an omnipotent God watching her from on high. “I was convinced everything that I did was on display for God and everyone in heaven, that I had an audience at all times,” Anhedönia tells me over Zoom. She’s calling from her dimly lit bedroom in rural Alabama, where there’s just enough light to make out her self-drawn tattoos: a delicate crown of stick-’n-pokes just below her hairline, spelling out the Hebrew names of her favorite archangel and demon; a small cross nestled beneath her clavicle; the word please etched on her neck, which she inscribed in the mirror one day after taking ketamine. Behind her are dark wood walls, a plain metal bed frame, and an American flag.

These days, Anhedönia only has an audience when she wants one. In the three years since she began releasing music under the name Ethel Cain, she has garnered critical acclaim for her smoldering pop and alt-rock anthems about love and loss on the American outskirts. But unlike Lana Del Rey’s vision of patriotic nostalgia, Anhedönia’s Southern Gothic is one viewed without rose-tinted glasses. Instead, she exposes the country’s dark underbelly in songs about poverty, substance abuse, violent impulses, and religious angst, written from the perspective of her alter-ego, Ethel. “I always say she’s like a dark mirror image of me,” she says. “She’s the troubled child, and I’m the one who tries to get things right.”

“I don’t think I even heard the word transgender ‘til I was 15 years old. I Googled it, and instantly I was like, This is it. I just didn’t have the words to express myself before that.”

That wasn’t always the case. When Anhedönia invented the character in high school, she conceived Ethel as “a statue of womanhood”—a flawless, powerful figure who served as a cipher for the feminine archetypes she wanted to explore, having realized she was trans in her late teens. “Growing up where I did, I don’t think I even heard the word transgender ‘til I was 15 years old,” she says. “Then I got a Tumblr account, and I saw somebody post about being transgender, and I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ So I Googled it, and instantly I was like, This is it. I just didn’t have the words to express myself before that, but I knew that something was not clicking with the people around me, and that really contributed to my feelings of loneliness.”

Anhedönia came out as trans at age 20, and penned “A House in Nebraska,” one of the tracks off her new album Preacher’s Daughter, just a few weeks later. As the project expanded, Anhedönia became less interested in the idealized version of Ethel and more interested in the doubts, desires, and struggles lurking underneath the surface. “In the beginning, Ethel was modeled after my mother, and all the women that raised me—all of these beautiful, modest, religious wives who bite their tongues,” she explains. But as Anhedönia’s mother began to disclose her own struggles to her as an adult, Ethel became more humanized—and with this came new flaws and shortcomings. No longer a vision of docile femininity, she began to reflect Anhedönia’s own experiences of malaise, religious rebellion, and a growing disenfranchisement with the American dream—themes she explores in her first two EPs, Golden Age (2019) and Inbred (2021).

These days, Ethel functions less like a role model, and more like an emotional crash-test dummy. “As an author, I let her make the mistakes I don’t want to make,” she explains. “She wants to be angry, she wants revenge, she wants to not heal—all those things that are your first instinct. I let her do that, and realize, You can do that, but it’s not good for you. So as her story progresses and gets darker, I’m trying to get healthier and stronger, and move away from negative patterns. It’s been interesting watching her go from having all the answers that I didn’t have, to being the one who is doing everything wrong so that I can do it right… It’s almost like a strange passing of the torch, because when we began, I was so insecure and broken and scared, and Ethel was perfect. She was everything I wanted to be, and now she’s turned into everything I can’t afford to be, if I’m going to live the kind of life I want to live.”

Ethel’s life comes to an end in Preacher’s Daughter, but Anhedönia’s ambitions don’t end there. Her next album will see her embody the character of Ethel’s mother, shedding life on a complicated figure from a new perspective. “I want to show how beautiful the archetypical Southern family can seem, how ugly it can be, how visceral it feels—everything that goes into being a wife and a mother and a daughter,” she says, explaining that the Ethel Cain universe will span multiple generations in order to explore the lasting impact of generational trauma, addiction, and abuse. She’s quick to state that her focus on these subjects is not intended as glorification or glamorization—rather, it’s an unflinching look at the communities in which things like incest, domestic violence, alcoholism, and drug abuse are common, and often not depicted in popular media outside of one-dimensional stereotypes. “As an artist, I’ve always been told, ‘Write what you know,’” she says. “In a way, I can’t imagine what else I’d sing about… It’s something that’s been so prevalent in my own life, and in stereotypes of my community, that I’d feel like I was wasting an opportunity to talk about it.”

“There will always be plenty of kids in little homes in the middle of nowhere, across the country and across the world, who feel like they’re the only person who is going through what they’re going through.”

Growing up Southern Baptist in a small, conservative town on the Florida panhandle, Anhedönia never saw her experience accurately represented in modern pop music. “There was no one I idolized who was singing about exactly how I felt. And so I was like, ‘Does anybody else out there feel like this, or am I completely alone in the world?’” she says, reflecting on a childhood spent “in a bubble,” homeschooled and siloed from the rest of the world. “I always say that everything I do is for the backwater kids. I get a lot of messages from queer kids like me, who grew up super religious, and it’s nice to be able to write something that they can connect to—to know we’re one and the same in that way. There will always be plenty of kids in little homes in the middle of nowhere, across the country and across the world, who feel like they’re the only person who is going through what they’re going through. ”

The Ethel Cain project, and the often-sinister religious iconography attached to it, are the direct result of Anhedönia’s own experience with Christianity’s potential as a “vindictive, cult-like force.” Having come out as gay at age 12, she faced mounting intolerance from her community. “I genuinely had angry Christian parents at my high school who were convinced I was an actual practicing witch at the age of 14,” she says with a wry laugh. “It sounds crazy, because people use the term ‘witch hunt’ metaphorically, but they actually believed this about me—a lonely teenager! It put a really bad taste in my mouth. So I left, and I rejected all of it.”

These days, she no longer believes in an all-seeing, all-knowing God she was once so afraid of—but while she doesn’t identify as religious in the traditional sense, she has become a lot more spiritual. Part of this is rooted in her deep appreciation for the stillness and silence of the South, which she now experiences in ways that weren’t possible during the tumult of adolescence. “As a kid, my loneliness felt inescapable. It felt like something that I was being subjected to, like a punishment. And now I see it as a gift. Privacy, and the ability to enjoy your own company, is a luxury today. It’s like, I don’t have to feel lonely—I get to be alone,” she says, explaining her decision to continue living in a small town in rural Alabama, two hours from the nearest airport, and even further from the bustling industry of urban centers. “A year or two after leaving the church, I realized I didn’t want to run from my upbringing—I wanted to face it head on. [It’s powerful] knowing that I can accept it, take control of the situation, and love it in a way that I wasn’t able to when I was younger,” she says. “It’s been a process of returning to the ways that I grew up, but in a way where I’m in control, rather than being a victim of it.”

In her daily life as Hayden Anhedönia, she experiences spirituality most often as a flash of inspiration: a moment of awareness, of slowing down and getting in touch with the world around her. It’s something that happens most often when she’s driving. “There are so many places in this world that are just meant to be passed through,” she says, describing the liminal spaces of gas station bathrooms and truck stops, or the side of the interstate. “When we’re out on the open road, it’s easy to think of it just as a thoroughfare to get from one place to the other. But, you know, I try to remind myself that every inch of the road is a place too—you just have to get out and experience it.”

“Everyone is born a regular human being. That’s something I want to touch on in my musical projects—wondering what my fellow humans have had to go through to become who they are.”

When we speak, she’s about to embark on a US tour, and is particularly excited to play shows for her fans in small towns across America: the self-proclaimed ‘Daughters of Cain,’ who refer to her as ‘mother’ and have eagerly anticipated the release of Preacher’s Daughter a 76-minute sonic journey based on a script Anhedönia developed. Oscillating between seductively listenable pop, hypnotic alt-rock power ballads, and ominous compositions inspired by Gregorian chants, the album employs a range of sonic techniques to represent Ethel’s experience as a teenage runaway—from pumped-up bangers like “American Teenager” to spine-tingling experimental tracks like “Ptolemaea” and “Televangelism,” the latter of which commemorates her ascent to heaven after dying at the hands of the all-American bad boy she once romanticized.

Ethel’s life, and the moral failures of those in it, are informed by things Anhedönia herself has witnessed: the impact of addiction, abuse, and cycles of trauma left unbroken for generations. “When you hit that bottle, or you throw that punch, it’s not just affecting you and the person you’re throwing it at; it affects everyone around you, for many, many years. The ripple effect goes so far,” she says. Taken as a whole, the project is “a cautionary tale of the dangers of “not learning how to forgive, not learning how to move on, the consequences of revenge… Ultimately, it’s a story about how your actions affect other people.”

If this sounds like a sermon, that’s because it is. But Cain’s gospel preaches a more complex morality—one where people’s actions aren’t black-and-white, and instead are informed by the confluence of complex circumstances they inherited. “I’ve always been fascinated by the way that certain things can happen to a person, things that twist them up inside so badly that it drives him to do things that somebody else would consider reprehensible,” she says, recalling a childhood fascination with serial killers, cults, and horror films that reflected the dark side of human nature. “I’m not excusing anything, because everyone is responsible for their actions. But everyone is born a regular human being. That’s something I want to touch on in my musical projects—wondering what my fellow humans have had to go through to become who they are.”

In chronicling the ugly realities of life on the fringes, Anhedönia seeks to bear witness to experiences outside the scope of most contemporary pop music—illustrating real struggles through the potent medium of fiction, and creating new forms of self-expression in the process. “A lot of [Ethel’s] problems are my problems that I’ve just spun around to match her story, so navigating it from a bird’s eye view helps me piece together things in my own life, kind of like how it’s easier to give advice to a friend. In a way, Ethel has helped me more than any therapist has,” she says. “I think a lot of music is so glamorized, and it is about feeling good and forgetting your troubles. But I’m like, ‘I can’t really forget my troubles.’ So I might as well try to make sense of them.”