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Ethel Cain Is the Most Famous Girl at the Waffle House

DALEVILLE, Ala. — About 25 minutes north of the Florida border, near the mouth of a U.S. Army post and not much else, sits a simple brick home with wood paneling, open windows and a silver pickup truck out front.

Isolated and unassuming from the outside, the place is filled with the paraphernalia of a creative life that is carefully constructed and expertly art-directed: stacks of VHS tapes (“Gummo,” “Carrie,” “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”), old TVs to play them on, creepy dolls with drawn-on face tattoos, dusty books about religion and sexuality, yellowing vintage photographs, animal bones, human teeth and thrift store clothes scattered everywhere. Only the closet full of flowing Victorian nightgowns and Gunne Sax-style dresses in white and cream seems organized.

In the bathroom, an eyelash curler rests atop a Stephen King novel. The posters on the bedroom walls are for Slayer, “Born in the U.S.A.” and Dale Earnhardt Jr. The Wi-Fi password is godlovesyou.

Two young sisters live inside. One works at the gas station down the road. The other, who performs as Ethel Cain, might soon be a pop star — or at least the modern version of one increasingly common these days that might more accurately be called a cult star.

“I don’t want to be a celebrity,” Cain, 24, said recently, ahead of the release of her debut album, “Preacher’s Daughter,” out Thursday.

Yet already, she has found the beginnings of tastemaker recognition and fan obsession online. Her first record deal, signed amid the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, put some powerful people in her corner. Major labels, luxury fashion houses and experimental television creators have been sniffing around.

At the same time, Cain has no manager and no interest in forcing a hit on TikTok or Spotify. The dreamy, longing songs on “Preacher’s Daughter” — largely written, recorded and produced alone in her bedroom — may be soaring in sound and intention, but they are deliberately slow, hazy and dense, often stretching past the six-minute mark before exploding into an out-of-fashion guitar solo or spooky instrumental passage.

Cain also insists on living in the middle of nowhere, the better to drive her truck around barefoot and hang out in empty fields and graveyards or under dilapidated bridges. Before rural Alabama, she rented an abandoned church in a random Indiana town of fewer than 2,000 people.

In her slight Southern lilt, Cain expressed nothing but shellshocked disdain for cities like New York and Los Angeles, where most in her enviable position end up.

“Oh God, I will never be caught dead living in either of those cities,” she said over nighttime eggs at the nearby Waffle House. “I don’t want any career that requires me to be there.”

Instead, emboldened by a shriveling monoculture and an influential generation of internet-first auteurs who molded culture in their image via persistence and vision, Cain is intent on bringing the industry to her world.

Born and raised in Perry, Fla., a tiny city on the Big Bend of the panhandle named for a Confederate general, Cain views her youth as both picturesque and tortured. She felt strangled by the strictures of her Southern Baptist upbringing, with her own three baptisms failing to take and a community that treated her like a “satanic witch.”

But she also clung to the culture, turning the lows of Americana and fantasies of freedom into a caustic and self-aware Southern Gothic persona that she describes as “a mixture of my favorite final girls in horror movies and Billy Graham.”

The glare of cosmopolitan attention, she knows, could threaten Ethel Cain’s very essence. “That’s why I love Alabama: Nobody in this Waffle House knows who I am, nobody at Walmart knows who I am,” she said. “Down here I can just be a local girl, and I love that.”

Her artistic aims, though, are grand, in line with recent iconoclasts like Tyler, the Creator and Lana Del Rey, who balance the resource-heavy spectacles of pop heavyweights with the no-sacrifices creative control of indie outsiders. Ideally, Cain will hoard influence and cachet until she can successfully disappear into her elaborately plotted work.

“For this first record, I’ll play Miss Alt-Pop Star and I’ll parade myself around and do photo shoots and whatnot, and then I’ll end up like Enya or Joanna Newsom, where I come out of my little hidey-hole every five years to drop an album,” she said. “But I know I have to earn that legacy. I’m gritting my teeth.”

NONE OF THIS felt possible in Perry, Cain explained the next day, in the coziness of her home cocoon and over Taco Bell at the local creek. The oldest of four children, she was home-schooled by her born-again mother, a “very artsy-fartsy” child in a town “full of rednecks.” Her father was a truck driver who now works at the lumber mill.

Mostly walled off from secular culture, Cain listened to Christian music or Gregorian chants and sang in the church choir, but she also immersed herself in her grandparents’ collection of scary movies and true crime on television when she could. “I lived in this weird little bubble. The only vision I had into the real world was this violent, graphic media, full of drugs and murder,” she said, tracing her enduring fascination with the seedy and brutal underbelly of the idyllic and local.

Cain always knew she was different. At 12, she told her mother that she was gay and was later sent to religious therapy. “My therapist was the first person in my whole life to ever tell me I wasn’t going to hell,” she said. “I guess she didn’t understand the assignment.”

Increasingly alienated and defiant amid her conservative surroundings, she found solace and inspiration in pop music fandom online after hearing a Florence + the Machine song in the credits of a movie. It was as if a portal had opened. As a teenager sneaking time on Twitter and Tumblr, she began living as nonbinary.

When Cain graduated from high school, having found some real-world liberation in the theater program of a local community college, she moved to Tallahassee with hopes of attending Florida State University for film school. Instead, she fell into a depressive black hole of goth clubs, hard drugs and gender confusion. Under the names Atlas and White Silas, she experimented with brooding, explicit electronic music that matched her mind state.

In 2017, while on acid, Cain shaved her head and tried to commit to life as a man. “I couldn’t look in the mirror for six months,” she said.

On her 20th birthday, she came out publicly as trans on Facebook and soon legally changed her name to Hayden Silas Anhedönia (that is, the inability to feel pleasure). That same week, she had the breakthrough that would birth Ethel Cain.

A simple, ringing piano loop she stumbled upon online was all it took to shake something loose. “It was like a bell ringing across a wheat field from miles away, just washing through my body,” Cain said. “It was like being on drugs.” She immediately began writing what became “A House in Nebraska,” an eight-minute power ballad on “Preacher’s Daughter” about two doomed lovers in a faraway farmhouse.

A handmade white dress purchased from Etsy fueled her paradigm shift further. “I swear to God, Ethel Cain, like, possessed me,” she said. “It sounds so corny, but almost immediately, it was no more gothic churches, no more electronic music. It was guitars and it was schoolhouses and ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”

It would also become cults, killers, sexual violence, religious trauma and cannibalism. The idea for an Ethel Cain screenplay turned into a concept album, which turned into a conceptual career. “I love overkill — I’m nothing if not dramatic,” Cain said. “It’s over-the-top American melodrama, it’s ‘Thelma & Louise’ and the most ridiculous, psychotic, psychedelic things.”

As the Ethel Cain universe and sound continued to take shape, people started paying attention. A comprehensive visual aesthetic heavy on VHS fuzz, Polaroid soft focus and subversive holy imagery helped pique curiosity. Willowy, striking and chatty, Cain is covered in tattoos that, like her music, are mostly homemade and self-drawn, including the word PLEASE across her throat and the Hebrew names of her favorite archangel and demon under her hairline.

But the music — which landed at the warped intersection of Taylor Swift and Lil Peep, Florence Welch and Bruce Springsteen — grew to match her look in its fully formed, unorthodox familiarity. A sharp, self-deprecating voice on social media helps to pull the project back from pretension.

IN EARLY 2020, through the emo-rapper Lil Aaron, an online collaborator, Cain was introduced to the staff of Prescription Songs, the independent music publisher and record label owned by the pop super-producer Dr. Luke. On her first trip to Los Angeles, Cain showed up at the company’s shiny building “looking like an absolute hillbilly,” she said. But her nearly manic creative energy and works in progress wowed them, and they offered her a deal.

“Inbred,” an EP that was Cain’s first official release last year, showed pop potential on arch, deadpanned tracks like “Crush” and “Michelle Pfeiffer.” But her enduring vision of “Preacher’s Daughter” was immovable, and Prescription promised her complete creative freedom even as it has tried to gently guide her career.

“Every person that I put her in the room with, she loved meeting them, but none of it felt authentic and true to her,” said Marlee Kula, Cain’s A&R executive at the company, who was responsible for setting up songwriting and studio sessions. “None of those ideas ended up making the record.”

That included Cain’s only meeting with Dr. Luke, a polarizing figure in the industry in light of his ongoing court battle with the singer Kesha over accusations of sexual abuse. (Cain said she didn’t know he owned the company until after she signed. “I’m not Googling CEOs when I’m eating a candy bar,” she said. “I was unemployed and it was a pandemic. I didn’t have the option to turn down money.”)

The two are unlikely to end up more intertwined. “He sent some music — God, I hope he doesn’t blacklist me for saying this — but he showed me some demos and was trying to do some stuff in his studio,” Cain said. “I was like, yeah, boss man, sure!

“I went in the booth and I did some stuff,” she recalled. “He was like, simplify it, simplify it, stop doing so much embellishment! But I was doing the stuff that makes my music my music. He was like, make it catchier! And I was like, OK, this sucks. This is not going to work.”

Cain paused, considering her words. “Creatively, I have no need for him,” she said. “But I have no need for anyone.”

For now, the singer’s day-to-day life could not feel further from the glossy, demanding side of the business. All she does is explore the outdoors and create by herself, though trips out of town for work are becoming more frequent. Still, her last Thanksgiving consisted of a bottle of vodka and some McDonald’s beneath a graffitied overpass.

But Cain knows that gap will inevitably start to close as her music reaches more listeners — which she hopes it will. She will need the support, after all, to see through the Ethel Cain project, which she has conceived as three albums, three books and three movies tracing three generations of women, infused with her own biography and even more twisted imagination.

In the meantime, she has already put 60,000 miles on the used truck she bought with the money from her record deal less than two years ago, exploring the parts of the country that inspire her as she chips away at her American epic.

“This, to me, is my life’s work,” Cain said, and she’s in no rush to finish, musing that it may take her well into her 30s. Then she just might be somebody else.

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