Live Review

Ethel Cain & Katie Dey @ Cremorne Theatre, QPAC

- I knew Ethel Cain was popular, in certain circles at least, but up until this week I had no idea just how large those circles were. Clearly, she is well-known enough that her onstage collapse at Vivid Sydney made headlines nationwide. However, any doubts about the true extent of her popularity were removed upon seeing the adoration and devotion of her fans, many of whom were attending not one, but both of her concurrent, sold-out shows at QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre. Melbourne experimental pop musician, Katie Dey, provided support.

Katie Dey’s set was short and sweet, matching her temperament. Performing a mix of bedroom hyper-pop and lo-fi, Dey possesses a powerful voice of her own, with her sugary music masking the often bleak themes of her lyrics. Her setlist was comprised, predominately, of songs from her most recent efforts, 2022’s Forever Music and 2020’s MyData.

I’ve always enjoyed Katie Dey’s music, but personally prefer listening to it on record, as opposed to to seeing it live. This is meant with no offence to Katie herself, and it is an issue I experience at times with other electronic musicians, where, onstage playing everything through a laptop, the mystery and illusion of the songwriting process is removed, similar to a magician revealing their secrets.

Obversely, the stripped back approach worked for Ethel Cain. Based on not just her music, but the careful and deliberate crafting of her image, particularly in photoshoots and music videos, I had anticipated a theatrical element to her show. However, she took the stage in jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers, backed by a drummer and a single guitarist. No props, no distractions, not even a smoke machine. Onstage, all Cain had to rely was the authority of her voice and the strength of her performance.

QPAC’s Cremorne Theatre is a small space, with an even smaller stage. This intimacy may suffocate some performers, but it was something Ethel Cain used to her advantage. She possesses incredible vocal abilities and an undeniable charisma, ensuring all eyes in the room are undoubtedly fixed on her, and her alone. Encouraging this attention, she interacts with the audience in way that is both authentic and genuine, singling out various attendees, holding their hands and encouraging them to sing with her, even giving an extended hug to a particularly appreciative fan.

Ethel Cain, the professional pseudonym of Hayden Silas Anhedönia, was born in a small town in the Florida Panhandle, Coming out as gay at twelve, they left the church at sixteen, having been ostracised years before, and on her twentieth birthday, Cain came out as a trans woman. Though she still identifies with her Southern Baptist upbringing and incorporates religious imagery and iconography into her music, photoshoots and video clips, she no longer considers herself Christian.

Cain, initially under the name of White Silas, began creating bedroom electronica, producing a small number of EPs before releasing the incredible Preacher’s Daughter album in 2022. Melding heartland rock with modern pop, the album plays with the classic American tropes of religion, high school crushes and a blue collar existence filtered through a lens of darkness, depression and despair.

Cain writes about All-American characters, mostly, small-town Southern types, working class parents, high-school kids and members of the local church; on the surface the stereotypical hard-working and God-fearing residents of the "greatest country on earth." However, those that dwell within her songs, many it seems, with a basis in her own past - the drug addicts, drop-outs, school shooters, abusers and predators - are more rooted in reality than the romanticised image many Americans have of themselves.

Opening with A House in Nebraska, Ethel Cain’s short setlist comprised almost entirely of songs from Preacher’s Daughter, except Crush, off her earlier EP, Inbred, which was notable for receiving the biggest response from the already rabid audience. Whilst I was disappointed not to hear the terrifying Ptolemaea, Thoroughfare and Sun Bleached Flies, two of Preacher’s Daughter’s more epic tracks, were even more compelling live than on the record.

Ably backed by her drummer Bryan De Leon and guitarist Steven Colyer, the trio breathed additional life and depth into songs that were already powerful, but live they became truly spellbinding. Closing the set with the aforementioned Crush, Cain returned for a one song encore, playing the anthemic American Teenager, perhaps her most well known song and a fitting end to the show. As a final gesture, before departing for good, she handed her setlist to the same front row fan she singled out for a lengthy hug earlier in the set.

Ethel Cain represents the traumas, the trials and tribulations of an entire group of people glossed and glazed over in the modern history of their own country. People that cannot, and who mostly will not, escape the perpetual cycle of addiction, abuse and violence. Those that live in shame of the person they are, those that cannot be themselves for fear of being ostracised from their communities and families because their gender or sexual orientation is at odds with the conservative, religious opinions of those around them. No hopers in the truest sense, those without a choice.

Looking at the audience, it is clear that Ethel Cain is something of an outsider icon, an underground pop star who is relatable for those who likely have very few identifiable icons. Watching Cain onstage, her reciprocal appreciation is obvious and, witnessing her interactions, it is clear she sees them as the individuals they are and not just as a faceless audience. Music is always more enthralling when it is genuine and witnessing Cain onstage, stripped of all the imagery of her film clips, her authenticity is obvious. Equally powerful and vulnerable, she performs with a maturity far beyond her years. Given her career is just starting, it is exciting to consider what she could be capable of what she might do next.

- Nick Stephan.


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