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Adolescent Reverence: Ethel Cain’s ‘Childish Behaviour’ Tour

Photos by Hannah Tang

Outside Camden’s Roundhouse, a queue trails the length of Chalk Farm Road, draped in an array of virginal white prairie dresses, muted camo shirts, and dangling silver crosses, a patchwork of fabric somewhere between a Flannery O’Connor scene and a church service. Despite a sudden downpour, Ethel Cain’s crowd remains upbeat, excitedly discussing the rumoured setlist and comparing their journeys to the venue – one fan tells me he’s flown thousands of miles to see her live. Among the anticipatory chatter, one sentiment shines through: this performance will be nothing short of a spiritual awakening.

Hayden Silas Anhedönia, who performs as Ethel Cain, released her first album Preacher’s Daughter in 2022, amassing 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify: enigmatic rhythms enmeshed with powerful, sultry vocals frame a story of religion, love, and violence, a narrative that hooked listeners around the globe. Over the past few years, her tracks and Extended Projects created under an assortment of aliases have gained a devoted following (fondly dubbed Daughters of Cain) which surged with her official debut. A central tenet of her work is its strong Baptist influence; the line “God loves you, but not enough to save you” from the penultimate track ‘Sun Bleached Flies’ has become an iconic slogan, tattooed on several fans present at this show.

Moments before Anhedönia graces the stage, the lighting fades and darkens, plunging the audience into shadow. A wailing voice pierces the apprehensive, reverent silence, a haunting variation of the 19th-century Christian hymn, ‘Nearer My God To Thee’, as the band slowly begins to enter. The stage is adorned with the Palestinian flag, and a simple wooden box crudely inscribed with the word ‘Offerings’ sits on a church table. As the vocals begin to warp and distort, like something out of an analogue horror movie, the singer-songwriter strolls onto the stage and immediately launches into her unreleased track, ‘Dust Bowl’. In contrast to other performances I’ve witnessed, like the frenzy of Lana Del Rey at British Summer Time last year, the crowd is quiet, enthralled. ‘Dust Bowl’, found only on unofficial SoundCloud and YouTube links, is reimagined in this live performance, the melancholic Duster instrumentals elevated to brutal heights: the bass trembles as Anhedönia softly sings of Alabama teen romance, “smoking that shit your daddy smoked in Vietnam”. Her still form is framed by a screen displaying slow montages of Cain’s solemn gaze, interspersed with bleak shots of rural fields and creeks that invoke the Southern Gothic visuals synonymous with her music. 

Unlike her adoring devotees, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter is simply dressed: white tank,  black jeans. Although she may be performing as Ethel Cain, and re-enacting the auditory narrative of a girl brutalised, the familiar, fluid ease in her movement and bashful smile place the listeners in an environment more akin to an intimate underground show, rather than the reality of a grand circular space filled with one and a half thousand eager fans. The performance is only made more intimate by her earnest gaze roving across the crowd in instrumental lulls, as if seeking to look every person straight in the eye. She sways hypnotically during the slow sorrow of ‘A House in Nebraska’, hands clasped around the microphone, head bent, eyes lifted skyward. The penetrating, stripped-back vocals punctuate the most heartrending of lines, Anhedönia voicing “I’d kill myself to hold you one more time” as minimal piano chords reverberate across the verse. Fans whisper lyrics like invocations, clutching hands and wiping away stray tears. 

The twelve-track setlist includes two new songs, ‘Amber Waves’ and ‘Punish’, and the artist pauses thoughtfully before each one. “Be as still as possible,” she gently instructs the crowd, “and just let the music pass through you.” The space becomes almost meditative, every eye transfixed upon the shrine of the stage. Featuring seven songs from Preacher’s Daughter, the show moves through the narrative chronologically, transitioning through hazy vignettes of Ethel Cain’s life – from the road trip twang of ‘Thoroughfare’ and drugged sex work in ‘Gibson Girl’, to her death and ascent to heaven in the discordant piano progression of ‘Televangelism’. The content of Preacher’s Daughter is graphic at best, and stomach-churning at worst. Despite this, there is a transcendent beauty in its performance, and as Anhedönia sings triumphantly of forgiveness in the tear-jerking ‘Sun Bleached Flies’, the crowd chants along fervently: “if it’s meant to be, then it will be / I forgive it all as it comes back to me”, hands held high like a worship song. 

During the encore, Anhedönia reverts to the beginning of the album, diving into her satirical anti-war pop anthem ironically named in Obama’s Top Songs of 2022 – the one and only ‘American Teenager’. Clutching the hands of fans through black latex gloves, the singer zigzags along the barricade, mouthing lyrics to upturned faces that were once solemn, but now scream and push and reach out empty palms to touch her. As the dizzying stage lights pulse over frantic bodies, I can’t help but think of the iconic Aftersun dance scene (although distinctly less tragic), thronged by ecstatic Daughters of Cain. Stories of preachers and cannibalism may be relatively niche in the music sphere, but Ethel Cain’s faithful following and debut album success demonstrate that her dark Americana is here to stay.

You can find her on Spotify, Youtube, and Instagram.


Edited by Julia Curry - Music Editor


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