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The artist behind Ethel Cain


Illustration by Andrew Mazariegos-Ovalle


Whether you learned about her through former President Barack Obama’s ironic inclusion of her song  “American Teenager” on his 2023 Summer Playlist, heard the “That’s so Ethel Cain vinyl” TikTok audio, or know all the words to “A House in Nebraska,” you have encountered the art of Hayden Anhedönia.


Hayden Anhedönia, better known as her fictional character “Ethel Cain,” whom she embodies through her music, has exploded in the music scene following her debut full-length record “Preacher’s Daughter.” However, Anhedönia has been releasing music for longer, under the Ethel Cain moniker and as part of various ambient projects. She refuses to fit into any box as an artist, creating stories through different artistic forms. 


I love Anhedönia as an artist because her dedication to crafting stories goes well beyond the typical artistry of modern mainstream musicians. While I will not describe the story of Ethel Cain, I implore you to listen to the album and read about the story after learning about the elements of Anhedönia’s craft that make her an extraordinary talent worth consideration as a serious artist across mediums. I will cover Anhedönia’s storytelling, orchestration, vocals, and visual curation skills as they shape the artistic interests of her music. 


When discussing Anhedönia, people first think of the intricate stories of the Ethel Cain character. The story itself is not the epitome of Anhedönia’s artistry but a product of it. Her storytelling is unmatched. She created a multigenerational fictional world and continues to release music based on those stories. Supposedly, an album about the mother and grandmother of the album’s narrator, Ethel, is on the way. A rumored novel about Ethel Cain is also in the works, as well as the release of additional tracks from early versions of “Preacher’s Daughter” that expand on specific points in the storyline. 


Anhedönia says that the spirit of Ethel Cain came to her and possessed her, leading her to craft a whole world based on Ethel’s story. Her EP “Inbred” and album “Preacher’s Daughter” are the musical pieces of the rich world of Ethel Cain that no one other than herself might ever know the full extent of. She keeps parts of the story to herself, leaving the rest up to interpretation for her listeners. 


The technical work behind Anhedönia’s musical endeavors brings her stories to life. Her orchestrations and production benefit from her work as an ambient musician. As an ambient musician, Anhedönia has an ear for subtle production techniques that make for a lush landscape. 


She gets sound in a way few others do. Her music has an otherworldly feel due to how she bends notes through echo, distortion, and her playing. All of this heightens the emotional impact of her music, affecting the listener without words. Sound effects emphasize the sensory experience of her music, adding dimensions that make the story real. 


As a vocalist, Anhedönia’s flexibility gives her songs depth. She can make her voice gentle and soft when needed, giving it an ethereal quality. At other times, her voice cuts through the instrumentation, calling attention to each quality of her voice as it soars in pitch and volume. Her ability to manipulate her voice to serve each song’s needs adds drama. Vocal sensitivity increases the effectiveness of music as a method of storytelling and emotional journey. 


Visuals accompany each of the “Preacher’s Daughter” tracks on Spotify. A corresponding short video plays alongside the songs. This gives her art a clear aesthetic focus, which she continues to grow from on her social media and in promotional materials. Photos of herself for the various Ethel Cain projects show how she embodies the character. Her body and face morph to take on Ethel’s physical and emotional states. Anhedönia has an eye for making the mundane beautiful. Her photos display the everyday aesthetic of the Southeast in ways that don’t glamorize but humanize the people and landscapes of a part of the country that is rarely presented to the general public as having aesthetic value. The visual compilation of these materials gives Anhedönia’s work a unique style that showcases her interests and individuality. 


Of all the musicians I follow, Anhedönia’s work is most compelling due to her insistence on creating work with resonance outside and inside its mythology. Her artistry pushes the boundaries of what is part of a piece of music by pairing her music with additional works that make the listener part of her world. To understand “Preacher’s Daughter” or any other work of Anhedönia’s, the listener must search for other artifacts, listen closely, and uncover the layers that make the music impactful.

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