This cover story appears in V141 Spring 2023 Issue, now available for purchase

On December 7, 2022, Ethel Cain played the last show of her Freezer Bride Tour in heaven—well, at Heaven, the nightclub in London. Attendees dressed up in all camo or as nuns and Gibson Girls, a seemingly mismatched cocktail of aesthetics that somehow coalesce smoothly for the Daughters of Cain, the singer and storyteller’s legion of followers. They erupt into fanatics when she begins playing “American Teenager,” perhaps the poppiest track off an otherwise hypnotically goth body of work. The pious performance was the final punctuation of a year that saw the release of the 24-year-old’s debut album, Preacher’s Daughter, a sold-out tour across her native U.S. as well as Europe, the singer’s debut fashion campaign (Givenchy) and fashion shows (Eckhaus Latta, followed by Miu Miu in Paris), and even a toe-dip into Hip-Hop tabloid stardom after she warned Drake; “Speak on megan again and i will rally the Amish.” (The advice came after Drake accused Megan Thee Stallion of lying about being shot by Tory Lanez).

Ethel wears dress, gloves, tiara VERSACE, Coat dress LEADING LADY COSTUMES, Necklace talent’s own, Rings (left hand) ANGOSTURA, Rings (right hand) IRADJ MOINI

Because nothing is really out of the question these days, Cain celebrated the tour’s completion by attending a Renaissance exhibit with her one and only idol, singer Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine, the very next day. At the William Morris Gallery’s show, The Legend of King Arthur: A Pre-Raphaelite Love Story, (which was suggested by Welch’s mom, Evelyn Kathleen Welch, who is an American-English scholar of the Renaissance), the singers toured artworks surrounding King Arthur mythology as envisioned by Pre-Raphaelite artists in Victorian England.


The exhibit was a perfect fit, not only due to our queenly cover with Cain, but because it focused on the fictional King’s folklore (some American writers attending said exhibit didn’t realize King Arthur wasn’t real, and that’s okay), which in a way mirrors what both Cain and Welch have created with their artistry; entire worlds that remind us of our own despite being somewhat distant, allowing others (the artists who contributed work to the exhibit, the nuns and Gibson Girls attending Cain’s show) to partake and escape into the mysticism.

After the tour, the women sat down for a candid conversation about LSD psychosis, both escaping and finding religiosity with music, and their kinks for longing.

FLORENCE WELCH: I want to start with the process. With Preacher’s Daughter, was that just you?

ETHEL CAIN: So, I was actually working on a different concept album, first. I was having some weird LSD psychosis withdrawals. And I was making an album about angels and stuff. I was six months into producing, and I was digging through the Internet looking for samples, and I found this piano sample that was buried in folders. And I heard it and it was like a bell that rang out. I was like, “Oh, I have to do something with this.” So I wrote “A House in Nebraska” all in one day. It just began this vision; like, I don’t need to be worrying about angels. I need to be making music about prairie women.

Dress and shoes GUCCI, Coat NATIONAL THEATRE COSTUME HIRE, Sunglasses SWAROVSKI, Necklace BULGARI, Earrings AREA

FW: Is that the moment when Ethel Cain arrived?

EC: It was so psycho. I was sitting on my bedroom floor—I will never forget the day—and I heard that first piano that you hear in the beginning of the song. And it was like I zoomed out and then rushed in and I saw this woman standing in a field with her hair pulled back in her little bun and her little school teacher prairie outfit, and I was like, “Who is that?” And I just immediately wanted to tell this Southern Gothic story about…well, I didn’t know. I was just there, and the interest was there, because I’d always liked Little House on the Prairie.

FW: It’s so powerful to think of a world and think of the character and to embody it, but also to be aware of the construction as well. I think when I was coming up, and things have changed a lot, but there was the idea that if it wasn’t really you, you weren’t being authentic.

EC: I was thinking about it last night at the show, because it’s like, you’re conducting with your arms, and you’re this big, powerful priestess. But then you’re winking at fans and giggling. And they’re like, “Meemaw, we love you!” It’s so funny, and it just nods at itself. I don’t know if I’m her or she’s me or she’s pretending to be me and I’m pretending to be her…


FW: Well before Ethel came to you, were you experimenting already with music?

EC: Well, before that…so being raised as Southern Baptist, I had just moved out of my parents’ house and I had a lot of resentment. I wanted to put a lot of distance between myself and my upbringing. Because Protestant religions are so simple, quiet, reserved, like subtlety is the name of the game. But I was obsessed with Gothic architecture. I didn’t have a name for it, but I had this character that was somehow a duo, it was an evil nun and then a little choirboy who was very weak and powerless. She was all-powerful and wore this crown of spikes and had a lot of tattoos. And I was making this Gregorian chant music because I was just starting to produce, I had no experience, and I had no idea how to mix anything with vocals. So I would layer 20 vocals, slap some reverb on it and call it a day.

FW: That’s how I did it as well, because vocals were the only thing I knew how to manipulate. So one of the questions the magazine suggested is, When did you first hear each other’s music? And it’s funny because I think we put our records out on the same day.

EC: Yeah, yours came out the day after mine.

FW: Right, that’s how I discovered the record. It’s happened to me twice where a record came out at the same time [as mine], and I discovered an artist who would become one of my favorites of all time. And then I found the Instagram, and I was like, “This artist is so committed to the world-building, and that just filled me with joy.” The world was so complete…and I was just like, “Ethel Cain, where did she come from?” And I really needed that record as well, because it just transported me away from the stress of my own album release.

All clothing THOM BROWNE

EC: It’s so funny—to answer that question, I think I was 14 and we were watching “Snow White and the Huntsman.” It was like, November. I was cold and I was being an edgy teenager, and the credits came along. And because I was obviously raised on Christian music—which is very one and done, it’s very uninspired, it’s very what it is—and I had probably heard my first pop song like six months before. I was very new to the world of any kind of music. And I remember my head just spun in a circle [when I heard your song “Breath of Life”]. And I remember seeing you in the studio recording it, just so much larger than life. And I thought, “Oh, you can be more, you can be bigger, you can be grander.” And it was so inspiring. I’d always been into escapism, but you know, in a small town in Florida, they’re like, “Don’t you want to have a job that pays the bills? And you need to get your head out of the clouds.” But I wanted to go all the way—I wanted to fully commit to the psychosis and delusion of being so grand and falling into the world.

FW: It’s interesting that it appealed to you while coming from Christian music, because so much of what I was doing was always searching for something spiritual that would give me a feeling as if I were connecting to something outside of myself, and that sort of sense of transcendence. It’s a big mess, but the same religiosity is going through it.

EC: After growing up in a church and hearing about how grand religion is supposed to feel and then not feeling it, it’s like an emptiness. [But] hearing music or seeing and ingesting a piece of art that actually takes you the whole way and fills that need for grandiosity, it’s like, this is what religion feels like. This is what it feels like to meet God.

All clothing and veil SIMONE ROCHA, Gloves LAEL OSNESS

FW:  Yeah. I feel that concept. I feel that with art and with artists, and I think I felt that in your performance when you opened for us in Denver, which was so special, because I usually get good numbers and a lot of support, like people showing up, but I’ve never seen [the arena] that full. Never seen it. [So I thought], this is Hayden’s first arena, and it’s full. [And] I did feel a stillness with which you held that arena, which is so different to how I perform. It was so inspiring, actually. I can kind of manage the energy of an arena but I am an outward performer. But it was almost like you pulled everyone’s energy into what you were doing, and it actually really inspired me to try to manage this stillness in my performance. Because the reverence and your vocals just sort of filled the space, and it just worked. But in general, how are you finding the connection with the audiences as they’re getting bigger? How is the interaction with the crowd changing?

EC: Well, I think a turning point was definitely the arena show, because it was a bigger show than I’d ever played. But last night, it was the last show and I was having such a good time, and I got into that zone. And I’d never done it before, but I just turned around and laid down, and [the crowd] was putting their hands up and roasting it together. And I thought, “this feels good.” And I got back up and I looked at this girl and asked, “Can I kiss you?” They want to be a part of something that’s more than just, we’re sitting here watching someone sing to us. They want it to be drama. You have to give them the drama.


FW: I’ve always thought like, [a kiss] could happen. And then I saw you, and I was like, “Well now I have to do it.”

EC: I said, “Can I kiss you?” She’s like, “What?” I asked again, “Can I kiss you?” She’s like, “Yeah.” And we made out. And I’m like, listen, any great night can always be made greater by kissing a pretty girl.

FW: I’ve been thinking about this a lot in my own relationships, where [these interactions with fans] has warped real relationships for me, because the intimacy and the experience with people in the front row, in those moments, I’m somewhat in control of that. Do you know what I mean? Like I have a really hard problem looking people in the eye. I have a real problem with expressing big feelings in a romantic relationship. And then I can come off the stage and stare someone [dead in the face]. It’s like, I don’t know, I found a safe space to manage those feelings where I can still have control of them.

EC: Romantic relationships are an absolute nightmare. I became such a career girl, and the career is going so well, and I feel like the Boss Baby, and I’m commanding, and I walk in the room and I have a vision. Let’s get this done. But then, with boys I’m like, “I can’t do this.” I kept getting into situations where I was like, I love the idea of this. And always my problem is, I want to be submissive, kind of just like, passive. I almost want to be a housewife in a way to men. And then it’s like, I come out of the gate so dominant because in the rest of my life, I am. And it’s like, I have a power, there’s a power struggle. It never lasts any significant amount of time. But I try so hard, and then the second someone tries to come in and like, be any kind of dominant, I almost cringe. I’ve come to realize recently that I’ve always romanticized codependency. Because I thought there was such a beauty in suffering, which is a toxic trait.

FW: Well, I think I have a longing kink.

EC:  I’ve never heard someone else say this.

Top and earrings GIVENCHY, Coat dress NATIONAL THEATRE COSTUME HIRE, Shoes R13, Necklace PATRICIA VON MUSULIN, Panty COMMANDO, On Lips LANCÔME L’Absolu Rouge Drama Matte Lipstick in #508 Mademoiselle Isabella

FW: All my work is about like…if someone becomes very real to me, like present in my life at the time, I can’t write a single song about them, because they don’t leave enough space. Like, say I’ve written half a record about someone I spent like, 24 hours with, and they would probably know [I wrote it about them]. They must think I’m so intense. Like, was that even real for them? Do you know what I mean? Like, I’ve constructed such a mythology around it…but I’d never speak to him about it.

EC: Never. I will have the most intense feelings toward a stranger, it’s so intense, just like, physically—it’s a little bit just like, the energy, the attention. And then I’m like, “That was great, thanks so much. Have a good day!” And then I’ll live in there and be like, “What was that?” Well, now I can’t stop thinking about you. I’m like, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

FW: I’m always wondering if the people out there who I have written songs about like, do they know? Are we ever going to discuss it?

EC: I love to blame the character. I’m like, “Ethel had a bad day.” But this is not about you. I promise it’s not about you (Laughs).

If you’d like to see Ethel Cain live, you can catch her this April playing at Coachella, as well as the Ceremonia Festival in Mexico City, Kilby Block Party in Salt Lake City, and as a special guest for Caroline Polachek’s The Spiraling Tour in New York and Washington D.C. Following up on the success of Preacher’s Daughter, Cain will be releasing a new extended play later this year.

Florence Welch will also be touring in Australia this March, as well as playing European festivals in the summer such as Lisbon’s Meo Kalorama and Ejekt Festival in Athens, Greece.

Special thank you to William Morris Gallery and be sure to check out their latest exhibitions, including Ashish: Fall in Love and Be More Tender, opening April 1st. 

This cover story appears in V141 Spring 2023 Issue, now available for purchase

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