Zaynab Khuder takes us along with her to Ethel Cain’s VIVID concert, letting us experience the haunting joy of her lyrics washing over the audience in the luminescent Drama Theatre, through the lens of an old Canon Powershot A590.
It's the night of June 4th and the sky is kissed with the glow of a full moon. Crowds of people litter Sydney’s city in anticipation for the annual Vivid light show. Not me though. Clad in lace and my dad’s red-lined black leather jacket from 88’, I walk side by side with my cousin who sports a similar combination of thrifted leather and lace. We endure the cold breeze of winter and the maze of people scattered from Circular Quay station with one goal in mind: Ethel Cain at the Sydney Opera House.
Swallowed in the ambient hues of the Drama Theatre’s lights, Ethel Cain sits in the middle of the stage, perched like a martyr in all her evangelical glory, preaching to a crowd of worshipping apostles. The crowd is silenced by the first note of “A House in Nebraska,” the third track off of Cain’s Preacher’s Daughter, an album that takes the grittiness of heartbreak and intergenerational trauma and gnaws through bone and sinew to bathe in the bloodied hands of its listeners. Its unabashed rawness is consumed by the haunting melodramatic symphonies of its protagonist, Ethel Cain – the Southern gothic alter-ego of Hayden Silas Anhedönia.
Ethel Cain’s debut album Preacher’s Daughter follows the release of her first three EPs titled, Carpet Bed, Golden Age and Inbred where the foundation of her alternative sound begins. Cain’s discography entails stories of bloodied knees, barbed-wired hands and mysterious lovers turned cannibals. The dauntless theme of her music is contrasted effortlessly by her entrancing vocals, her lyricism bordering a line between the poetic and evocative. Her performance is no less as entrancing as the subject of her musical catalogue and it's no surprise that she holds the attention of her audience, her voice travelling through the dim-lit theatre like the hymns of a God-devoted saint.
As the crowd watches from their seats, myself amongst them, we are transfixed and bound by the silence of our awe. Hayden’s voice doesn’t falter or sway in the midst of her performance. It's almost as if the events of the night before, where she had collapsed on stage from the exhaustion of travelling and touring, had never even occurred. In between songs, she reassures the crowd that she’s excited to play the whole show tonight after having to cancel last night’s show. The audience breaks out into a cheer, incessant clapping and an onslaught of cheering ensues before the lights dim once again and she begins singing the next track.
As I quietly hum the lyrics to Cain’s “Family Tree”: “These crosses all over my body / Remind me of who I used to be,” my hands fumble with my old Canon Powershot A590; a well-loved digital camera I’d purchased on a whim from Ebay, a forty-dollar sentiment that captures moments like these. The green-lit stage is consumed with flashing lights and it’s as if I’m gazing through a looking-glass, my eye on the viewfinder and my finger on the shutter release. Click. My aim is unsteady, and my hands shake eagerly as the camera focuses. I take several unusable, blurry photos. However, amongst the unusable and the mediocre, in between the imperfect lies an array of photos captured at the right moment in time; the focus just right and lighting just bright enough. The camera is quickly discarded, the strap wrapped around my wrist as my hands clasped together to clap and cheer at the ending of each track, my heart beating erratically in anticipation for the encore.
“You’re my choir,” I recall Ethel saying to the audience earlier on during the midst of the cheers and singing. And as she walks off stage, the crowd waits in anticipation before she walks back out; a string of clapping and yelling as she gets ready for the encore. She thanks the crowd, “Thank you, Sydney” and proceeds to encourage the audience to stand up from their seats to sing along. And just like a gathering of worshippers on Sunday mass, a choir, Cain had dubbed us, we rose from our seats. The audience doesn’t falter as we chant the lyrics to “Crush”, the second track off Cain’s 2021 EP Inbred. “Can you read my mind? / I’ve been watching you,” Cain’s voice, as well as the audience’s, echoes throughout the Drama Theatre. It feels surreal, gazing at how all of us, the audience and Ethel Cain herself, are connected in this singular moment. This moment, that will pass us in a couple minutes time, when the song hits its final note and Cain sings the final lyric. But we don’t dwell on the after; the post-concert depression that will plague us all as soon as we walk out the doors of the Sydney Opera House. Instead, we all shout, at the top of our lungs, “Yeah right, he fucking loves me!” before we transition into the final rendition of the chorus. My cousin and I, we sing to each other. Eyes bright and wild, hands entwined together as our faces are painted in the orange hues of the stage lights. We sing with the audience, and we sing to Ethel Cain as she sings to us. The hymns of Ethel Cain flow through our bloodstream like the connection we share through umbilical severance. We share this moment in time, unlike any other fleeting moment in our past. And for a singular, unchanged moment, we bask in the connection of the strangers around us and in the one common denominator we all share; the Preacher’s Daughter, Ethel Cain.