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The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Mother Cain embraces her found family at The Basement East

Ethel Cain’s performance of “Preacher’s Daughter” builds connection by confronting shared terrors.
Ethel+Cain+performs+at+The+Basement+East%2C+as+photographed+on+Sept.+8%2C+2022.+%28Hustler+Staff%2FKatherine+Oung%29
Katherine Oung
Ethel Cain performs at The Basement East, as photographed on Sept. 8, 2022. (Hustler Staff/Katherine Oung)

“Mother! Mother! Mother!” I shouted with the rest of the crowd, our voices crescendoing as the beginning notes of Ethel Cain’s “Strangers” leaked through the speakers and Cain took the stage. 

On Sept. 7, Cain performed at The Basement East as part of her Freezer Bride Tour. To her fans, Cain is known affectionately as “Mother Cain,” but Ethel Cain itself is a stage name for singer-songwriter Hayden Silas Anhedönia, referring to the persona Anhedönia adopts in her music and the protagonist of her debut album, “Preacher’s Daughter.”

 

“Preacher’s Daughter” can be interpreted as a narrative album set in 1991. In this sprawling epic, Cain resides in a religious Southern town, still reeling 10 years after the death of her father–the town preacher. Lines like “The neighbor’s brother came home in a box…Another red heart taken by the American dream” and “Jesus, if you’re there, why do I feel alone in this room with you?” in the second track, “American Teenager,” lay the framework for the rest of the project—a macabre, critical take on both American patriotism and Christian culture. 

The audio of “Preacher’s Daughter” alone charts a bleak tale. Cain grows up in a stifling hometown and fails to escape familial generational trauma and cycles of abusive relationships. In the 10-minute opus “Thoroughfare,” Cain believes she’s found salvation in a new lover and runs away with him. By the next song on the set, “Gibson Girl,” the relationship has mutated into a hostage situation that eventually leads to Cain’s death and possible cannibalization.

But during her live performance, Cain gently guided her listeners through the album’s heavy subject matter. At the emotional climax of many of the tracks, Cain crouched down at the front of the stage and held a concertgoer’s hand, singing directly to them. 

Performed this way, the tragedy of “Preacher’s Daughter” took on a more hopeful tone. Anhedönia grew up as a queer child growing up in a Southern Baptist community in Perry, Florida, and her life story mirrors many of the themes touched on in “Preacher’s Daughter.” However, while Ethel-Cain-the-character may have died, Ethel-Cain-the-artist is wholly alive.

Cain also brought in small moments of joy in between performances. Halfway through the concert, Cain led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” for fellow guitarist and the concert’s opener Colyer. Cain also accepted gifts from the crowd, including artwork and a small felt mouse that she kept in her jean pocket for the rest of the night.

After performing her hit single “Crush” from her 2021 album “Inbred,” Cain left the stage. The crowd clamored for more, this time with an even more playful cry of “Meemaw! Meemaw! Meemaw!”

For her encore, Cain performed “Sun Bleached Flies,” the second to last track on the album. In the album’s storyline, Cain narrates “Sun Bleached Flies” posthumously, referring to religion’s inability to protect Cain’s life. Cain has noted in interviews that this line also references the church’s justification of bigotry and has opened up about being shunned from her religious community after coming out as gay at age 12 and transgender at age 20. As a queer and nonbinary person myself, I too often feel conflicted about how much of my identity to reveal to friends and family, fearing their love may be conditional. When Cain reached the line, “God loves you, but not enough to save you,” I couldn’t help but sing along.

Whether she was singing the lyrics to one person or dancing alongside the whole crowd, Cain’s performance reminded her audience that they too can survive the circumstances placed upon them and find other people who empathize with their struggles. 

“That was a religious experience,” a fellow concertgoer said on the way out. “I feel like I just went to church.” 

Indeed, Cain’s performance embodied a restorative kind of spirituality by utilizing seemingly disparate notes of horror, playfulness and, most of all, sincerity.

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About the Contributor
Katherine Oung
Katherine Oung, Data Editor
Katherine Oung ('25) is majoring in political science and computer science and minoring in data science in the College of Arts and Science. They are from West Palm Beach, Fla., and were previously Deputy News Editor and Managing Editor. Katherine enjoys working on freelance journalism projects and making incredibly specific Spotify playlists. They can be reached at [email protected].
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