Opinion On The Record: “Ethel Cain has created a world that sits as the holy grail for misfits.”

Ben Tipple on why the breakthrough superstar has become a figurehead for othered outsiders everywhere.

Take a moment to scroll through Ethel Cain’s online presence and it’s immediately obvious that the singer - born Hayden Silas Anhedönia - is embracing the full extent of her true self. The imagery matches the dark, gothic-tinged confidence of her music: something that stopped me in my tracks after stumbling across her ‘Inbred’ EP, having been initially attracted almost entirely by the provocative religious iconography of its artwork. The EP’s bleak lyrics about deep-seated trauma and a damaged society, teamed with beautifully off-kilter alternative pop, was enough for this gay son of a preacher to be instantly hooked. It was more than apt that her follow-up would be called ‘Preacher’s Daughter’.

I’m by no means alone. Her followers – affectionately called the Daughters of Cain – flood across her socials to interact with their “mother”. On the surface, it has all the hallmarks of a cult (if not a beautiful one), but it’s exactly this that Ethel is pushing against with her complex love and hate of religion and the life it has brought her. “God loves you, but not enough to save you,” is etched across her skin - a mantra repeated in album highlight ‘Sun Bleached Flies’ in a moment that resonates massively to those that, like me, fall outside of societal norms. “‘SBF’ put me in the foetal position at first listen and made me cry no less than five times,” one fan replies on social media to a picture of the tattoo.

For me, it’s the simplicity of her words that carries so much weight. There’s something incredibly powerful in the ongoing battle between who you were and who you have become, retrospectively soundtracking a journey from youth to adulthood that involved rejecting the identity that was placed upon her and that forced her to find her own: a path that every queer kid will understand. It’s those ties to the past that remain, and that fill the hour-plus running time on ‘Preacher’s Daughter’, met by music that mirrors her total lack of interest in the conventional. It perfectly captures the overwhelming isolation of being othered, and at the same time promises hope through a powerful and supportive online community. Her rebirth as a modern-day icon is evidence that you can be yourself while still living with the fallout of what the world expected from you.

This world Ethel has created for her ‘daughters’ offers the space for authentic expression and escape when it gets too much. Her identity, something that hasn’t come easy, spreads beyond the music into everything she touches, and continues to draw in new followers at every turn, attracted by the easy confidence that comes out of rebellion. The unfiltered disregard for convention carries into it all, from the wood-clad walls of the Salem-esque house she recorded the album in, to her music’s subtle crescendos. In fighting to be herself, Ethel Cain has created something that sits proudly outside of everything else; that isn’t afraid to challenge but that does so in its own curated setting that doesn’t appear to care what anyone else thinks. It’s the holy grail for misfits, a place to be ourselves in a community that celebrates it.

As featured in the February 2023 issue of DIY, out now.

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