Writing by Kara Zosha // Photography by Ian Laidlaw
Ethel Cain is quintessential Americana found with similar artist such as Lana Del Rey, but with much more lying beneath the surface. With musical influences from her Southern Baptist background Cain’s music revolves around American nostalgia, Southern Gothic and religious themes, trauma, solace, and other dark motifs. Her debut album Preacher’s Daughter from start to finish is both haunting and beautiful, while you can listen to the songs individually I recommend you listen to it in its entirety. The concept album consists of a story centered around the character Ethel Cain who runs away from home only to fall victim to her murderous, and later cannibalistic, lover.
Cain’s music has a unique sound consisting of ethereal vocals over a haunting blend of drums, guitars, synths, and reverbs resulting in a sound that’s a cross between rock, country, and folk. Songs like American Teenager, A House in Nebraska, Sun Bleached Flies, and Crush (from Inbred) are lighter tracks with hints of yearning, while Family Tree, Hard Times, and Ptolemaea emphasize trauma and pain. Overall Ethel Cain’s discography may be small, but it’s definitely mighty.
During this year’s RISING festival, Ethel Cain came to Melbourne to perform on both June 9th and 10th upstairs at the Forum II. Both nights were completely sold out. The upstairs of the Forum, Forum II, is even more intimate than the original stage on the ground floor with only 500 seats. There were two rows added near the front of the stage with folding chairs and even a couple of people sat on the stairs. Cain came on stage following her bandmates, Bryan (drums) and Steven (guitar), to the beginning of A House in Nebraska – a song filled with longing for the past and loneliness.
As soon as the chorus hit,“And I still call home that house in Nebraska,” tears streamed down my face. The mixture of Cain’s powerful vocals and my homesickness hit all at once; an already emotionally charged song became somehow more painful. I’m not even from Nebraska nor have I ever visited, but the way Ethel Cain encapsulates loneliness, nostalgia, and Americana would make anyone cry. It was as if she was singing that song straight to me, a personal piece of home visiting Melbourne.
The stage was set very simple; Ethel with a mic, Steven with his guitar, Bryan with his drums, and a rug in the middle of the cozy stage. Ethel was dressed casually in jeans and a sweatshirt similar to the other two on stage. The character Ethel Cain is just a girl, she could be anyone and that’s reflected in how she dresses on stage.
From getting a rose from a fan to holding their hands, Ethel created a space that was similar to those of a church sermon. Ironic enough since songs like Sun Bleach Flies wrestle with the contradictions of organized religion, but not surprising with both her gospel-like sound and underlying religious themes throughout her discography. Collective energy was in the air and I’m sure Cain felt that love throughout the night.
With only a short setlist of seven songs and one encore, the majority of which came from Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain left a lasting impression. On the encore song American Teenager, you can see the love she has for both her music and fans as she leaned into the crowd holding hands and singing to them. This exchange between them was beautiful to witness and as it crescendoed into Cain pointing into the sky as she sang “Say what you want, but say it like you mean it” as the crowd echoed back the lyrics.