Ethel Cain describes her music as a dream-pop worship service
Ethel Cain is open about the fact that she wants to make listeners stop in their tracks. With her music, the goal is for listeners to become fully immersed in the moment and the sounds that she creates. Growing up in a Southern Christian town in Florida, Cain was raised largely on choir and worship music, with a touch of country mixed in. That’s something that she holds near and dear to her heart, even if she no longer ascribes to those ideologies. Once the 23-year-old songwriter, producer and director discovered the internet and pop music, her whole world opened up. Ever since, she has been on a path of artistic exploration.
As an artist, it’s hard to categorize Cain. Her music meanders between dark and ambient textures that offer a delicate and evocative sound to fully realized pop music that feels like the darker version of Lana Del Rey, coupled with a DIY and grassroots perspective. Cain also records and produces her music entirely herself, which allows her the freedom to explore whatever sounds she wants and create without the rules or parameters of modern production. On any given track, her vocals are rich with personality and dynamics, whether that’s through theatrical vocal performances or heavily processed Auto-Tuned lines.
In addition to recording her music herself, she’s also the director of her music videos and visuals, which create a distinct aesthetic behind her project. In collaboration with her best friend and videographer Edith Underground, the two struck gold with the music video for the single “God’s Country,” which captures a journey from Florida to Los Angeles with striking visuals shot entirely with VHS cameras for a raw and intimate feel.
The video highlights the essence of being on the open road and away from home for the first time and the anxiety and excitement behind being out on your own. The song and video also feature Gothboiclique member Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, who delivers his signature brand of somber vocals and introspective lyrics.
Her single “Crush” is undoubtedly her most accessible and immediate to date. With a simple bassline as the foundation, the track is what Cain describes as a “dumb pop song.” However, it’s impeccably written, with playful and observational lyrics that paint a clear picture of exactly what she’s trying to describe. It helps that the chorus beams with infectious energy. While she was initially hesitant to put out a straightforward pop song of this nature, fearing people would only associate her with this sound, she has grown to embrace the track. It has now become her breakout single of sorts.
The accompanying video is equally playful, with Cain driving around in a pickup truck across her Southern town with a boom box in tow, a pack of Marlboro Reds and hair curlers left on her head. “Crush” is the feel-good summer hit you will want on your playlist no matter the season. While it may be a departure from her darker material, it shows her breadth as an artist.
We sat down with Cain to discuss her musical roots in the south, her unique visual aesthetic, musical freedom and more.
What music was important to you growing up during your formative years of discovering songwriting and performing?
I didn’t have access to a lot of music growing up. My parents were very conservative Christians. I was in choir with my mom, and so a lot of it was choir music, holidays albums and late ’90s Christian music. My dad would also play Creed, Nickelback and Lynyrd Skynyrd in the truck. That was about it until I was in high school when the internet hit, and I discovered pop music. For most of what I would call my formative years, it was just church music and country music, which I think is the intersection I still find myself in today.
The visual aesthetic of your videos is so original, intimate and raw, especially with your video for “God’s Country.” What is your creative process behind making these compelling visuals for your music?
The COVID-19 pandemic hit. I was leaving Florida, and a lot of stuff was happening, so I was very scatterbrained at the time. My best friend who shot the video, Edith Underground joined me on a road trip to L.A., and she has all of the cool analog, old-school VHS equipment. I knew I wanted to take her expertise in what she does and mix it with this going on the road, free-spirited, wide-open country feeling. I was leaving home for the first time and felt like I was leaving things behind, with the training wheels coming off. It was just a very scary moment of the world opening up before me, and I was both terrified and excited but wanted to capture that in a raw, home-video way.
There was no real rhyme or reason to it. We just pieced together this story of life in the pandemic, life in the wide-open countryside, and it was just very freeing and adventurous. That was the theme of the whole EP, that jumping off into the unknown idea. It was fun letting go of the reins and seeing what could happen, and I love it.
One of the first things that stood out to me about your music was the unique choices in vocal production that you use. On several songs, your vocals go through a series of different effects, delays, reverbs and processing. What can you tell me about your production process that creates this distinct sound?
I love this question because I have never gotten it before but always want to talk about it. [Laughs.] I mixed this EP myself because I like to push myself to do things on my own and learn new things. It was my first project using Ableton software, and I was just downloading VSTs and fucking around. I love the choir, pretty-sounding vocals, but I also love pop music, so I would add Auto-Tune. I had never used Auto-Tune before this, so it was fun to play with it for the first time. I love to add chorus effects, pan vocals and do weird things with the delay. I guess I’ve always forced myself to by the only rule of having no rules and to just experiment.
For each song, I just sat down and crafted them individually to match this sonic space. I used to produce my music after smoking too much weed, and I would sit there with my eyes closed and headphones and feel like I was in this bubble, so I wanted the audio to feel like a hub, almost like you’re right there in it.
What was it like collaborating with lil aaron and Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, and are there any dream collaborations you have in mind for the future?
I met them by chance. Wicca found me through my friend Nicole Dollanganger and reached out and was really sweet. From that, lil aaron found me, and it was really a tumble into a new world with that scene. The collaborations with both of them were almost like a thank you for everything they have done for me and homage to them. They are really talented people, and there are elements from them that I have taken for my own music, so it’s been nice to learn new things.
As far as dream collaborations, I love Florence + the Machine. She’s been my biggest inspiration since I was in middle school. I’ve always wanted to pick her brain and work on something musically and visually. I think she’s just a force to be reckoned with. I’ve also been talking with my friend Kris [Esfandiari], who performs as King Woman. We’ve been bouncing ideas off of each other, and she’s been a huge inspiration for my music.
With your song “Crush,” it feels like your most accessible song to date and your breakout single in some ways. What was the process behind writing this song?
It was very strange. The EP was taking a very ambient, dark and moody turn. I was living in Indiana in a church. It was the dead of winter. I was getting cabin fever, and everything was getting dark. One night I just came up with the bassline, just fucking around, and decided to make something fun just for myself. I wrote it in 20 minutes, and I sent it to my A&R at my publishing company, and she told me I had to put this out.
When “Crush” performed the way it did, I was like, “What the fuck?” In hindsight, I guess I should have expected it because it’s a dumb pop song. [Laughs.] I’ve come around to like it, but I was worried about being seen as just this since it was a one-off and not my main thing. It’s silly, and it’s cute, so I am glad I put it out.
How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard an Ethel Cain song before?
It’s funny: I’ve been trying to think about it lately. I think there’s a difference between what I want my music to be and what my music winds up being. I always wind up going on a tangent, and my original plan is derailed by whatever harebrained scheme I get in the moment. I would say my music is like dream pop, but I also want it to feel like worship service music. I want my music to be a long story. I like music that stops you in your tracks and makes you think about the moment in time you are experiencing. I want each one of my songs to be this bittersweet moment in time, where it’s just a moment in passing, but it’s beautiful and right now.
Your popularity as an artist grew exponentially while the world was still at a standstill. Now that you are finally playing shows, what has that felt like for you, and what other plans are in store for this next year?
I get super nervous performing. It scares the living shit out of me. I’ve only played about five shows so far, but I’ve been really lucky to have sweet and attentive fans. It’s been like a personal relationship with my fans. I interact with them on Instagram, Discord, Twitter, and I’ve really become friends with them. As far as plans, more so than performing, I am excited to make more projects. I really want to get into film and want to be a director and writer more so than a musician. I want to make a video game and create the score for it and really just whatever comes to mind. I’m excited to perform and tour, but I think my real performance is in the studio, behind the computer, in a dark room making stuff with my hands.