Ethel Cain on 'Everytime' and Britney Spears' Cautionary Tale

Ethel Cain on 'Everytime' and Britney Spears' Cautionary Tale

Ethel Cain Zooms from her current home just over the Alabama line, approximately 20 minutes from Florida where she was born and raised. Her bedroom walls are wood-paneled and decorated with vintage Playboy covers, trucker hats and one massive box of Marlboro Reds that brings to mind her single, “Crush,” off 2021’s Inbred EP (“He looks like he works with his hands and smells like Marlboro Reds”). The artist prefers living off the grid this way, where her music can live and breathe without the influence of an industry marred by unhealthy pressures.

Ironically, this intimate environment is where Cain finished her recent cover of Britney Spears' early aughts ballad, “Everytime,” off In The Zone — a haunting track about suffering in the public eye from a pop star whose career never granted her any privacy or creative agency. “Every time I try to fly, I fall,” Spears sings, pairing her tragic lyrics with a music video that sees her battling swarms of paparazzi amidst an emotional breakdown. Cain understood this as a “cautionary” tale and approached her rendition from a place of “empathy” for International Women’s Day this month.

The result, like all of Cain’s work, is dark and dreamy, adding to a repertoire of American gothic soundscapes. She played all the instruments herself in Spotify’s Los Angeles studio, building off an acoustic guitar melody and sprinkling in touches of harmonica and broken synthesizers that close the cut in a dramatic, warbling wash. Her voice is soaked with reverb, inspired by Celtic millionaire Enya, whom Cain grew up listening to when her parents forbid all secular music. “Carribean Blue,” specifically, was her first experience witnessing an “ethereal style” of music, and its impact can be heard all over “Everytime.”

Beyond covering Spears, Cain has released the lead single, “Gibson Girl,” off her debut full-length album, Preacher’s Daughter, out May 12 (via Daughters of Cain). The seductive track arrives from the God-fearing South — full of its complexities and contradictions — as Cain grapples with who she wants to be and what she’ll ultimately become. “You wanna fuck me right now/ You wanna see me on my knees,” she sings, shrouded in ominous, shadowy production that complements the song’s “immoral” narrative. “You wanna rip these clothes off/ And hurt me."

Below, PAPER dives deep into all things Britney Spears with Ethel Cain (real name: Hayden Anhedönia) and learns more about the process behind her practice.

You’re living in Alabama now. When did you move there?

I moved out of Florida in 2020, then I lived in Indiana and I hated it and wanted to come back, but the housing market is fucked, so I couldn’t find a house in Florida. I found a house just over the Alabama line, like 20 minutes from Florida. This is the closest I could get, so I've been chilling here since last August.

Do you prefer to live off the grid in smaller places?

Oh, absolutely. My friends are always like, “When are you coming to LA?” You could not pay me to live there.

I’ve lived in New York, Chicago and LA, and everyone talks about how it would be nice to live in smaller towns, but no one can bring themselves to actually do it.

It has its downsides because it’s definitely boring sometimes. After a year here, I'm moving up to Milwaukee, [Wisconsin] because my best friend lives in Chicago and she’s going to move in with me, so that’ll be nice and then we’re coming back down to Florida after that. So I just move around every year, because why not? It’s really nice to visit big cities, but after a week or two there I’m like, I need to take a walk in nature and be by myself.

Working in a creative field, does having that space make you think in a different way?

Oh, 100%. I find when I go out to New York or LA, I have a completely different brain and that’s why it's really hard for me to do sessions out there. When I’m here at home, in the peace and quiet, I can do a deep dive into my source of inspiration and figure out how to make art. When I go to LA, I swear to god I only make pop music, so I can't be there too long.

Speaking of pop, I’m so happy you covered Britney Spears.

When they asked for me to be a part of Spotify Singles, they said, “We need you to do a cover of a song solely written by a woman. “I’ve been listening to a lot of male artists while working on this record, so when they asked I was like, “Let me dig into some female artists that I could do.” I didn’t want to do something too straightforward, because at first I was like, “I could do Enya or Imogen Heap or Mitski,” but I was like, “No let me think deeper.” I went back to my iTunes library from high school and I was either going to do “Everytime” or “Perfume,” because “Perfume” is my favorite Britney Spears song. I was also hearing the guitar for “Everytime” in my head, so it was such an easy choice.

It’s funny that you mentioned Enya, because I get Enya vibes from this cover.

See that’s perfect; instead of doing one of their songs and it sounding the same, let me do a song that sounds nothing like that and reference the style of those girls I was going to cover. It all came full circle. I feel like everything always ends up sounding like an Enya song because I'm obsessed with reverb and can never leave it off. I grew up listening to Enya non stop because my mom didn't want me listening to secular music, so she’d only approve certain things and Enya was one of them because, obviously, there’s nothing wrong with Enya. So she’d let me listen to Enya and she’d let me listen to Celtic Women. I remember in summer, on the couch I would lay and put “Caribbean Blue on my CD player, and I’d listen to it on repeat for hours. I thought it was the most beautiful sound ever; that was my first experience with dreamy, ethereal style and it always stuck with me.

I also love that Enya’s randomly so rich and lives in a castle somewhere–

With 20 cats.

Yeah, and everybody thinks about Enya, but nobody thinks about Enya at the same time

And that’s exactly what I want for my career. Enya is my career goal.

“Perfume” is such an underrated song off an underrated album, Britney Jean. Why do you love it?

I have really good memories of being in high school; I think I was a junior when that song came out. I heard it on the radio back when I listened to the radio; one day I was driving to school and I feel like all of her songs, like “Work Bitch” or “Toxic,” are really fun, sexy pop music, but something different stood out to me [about “Perfume”] in the same way “Every Time” does — that sweeter, more vulnerable side. I love the melodies, and one of my other favorite Britney Spears songs is “Criminal” for the same reason. They always stood out to me against her whole amazing discography, they’re so beautiful.

For being one of the biggest pop stars that we have, she's really dropped a wide range of music. “Criminal” sounds like nothing she's ever released or really anything that anyone else has made.

I know. I remember whenever she put it out, I think it came out at the same time that “Man Down” by Rihanna came out and I was listening to both of them at the same time. I remember thinking that both of them were such a unique sound for both artists — a little left field.

I was in high school in that era, too. That was a crazy time for music.

Oh my god, yeah. I swear 2009 to 2013 was the best possible time to be in middle school through early high school because it was a pop Renaissance, it was amazing.

All those school dances...

I swear whenever I rolled up to homecoming and they were playing “Timber” by Kesha I was like, “It's about to be the best night of my life.”

Which Britney album is your favorite? For me, the standout is Blackout, but as far as bodies of work, what do you think is her strongest?

If we're gonna say “strongest,” I think we would have to go with one of her earlier albums, for sure. I’ve always really loved Circus, but as far as personal favorites go I honestly think I would have to say Glory. Whenever Glory came out, I remember I would listen to "Make Me..." That was the summer I graduated high school and I was in nail school because I was going to be a nail technician. I remember I had to drive an hour every day to school and I listened to "Make Me..." on repeat the whole drive. It was such a good song. I always skip G-Eazy's part, but I love her vocals. And then whenever the rest of that album came out, like "Slumber Party," so good. It was just a really good summer and that was an album at the core of it. So yeah, I think Glory is my favorite Britney Spears album.

I have a few friends that worked on Glory and the stories they have about her being involved in the songwriting concepts are really interesting. There's this idea that Britney’s not creatively involved or that she doesn’t have a point of view, but it sounds like that’s not true at all.

I think Britney started in the music industry in a generation that had less creative control for women, specifically, and I think it was like, "You have to follow this formula because we're trying to make you as big as possible, which means we have to water you down.” And I think they really stifled her, but her career could have gone very, very differently had she been allowed the freedom that women in the industry have now. A lot of women are still funneled into that pop route now and are still heavily censored or steered, but I don't think anywhere as bad as it was when Britney came up. So yeah, I do really feel for her. I cannot imagine being censored and chopped up and screwed like that, it must be awful, so awful.

Britney had that whole unreleased album, Original Doll, which she brought to radio against the will of her label. I do feel like there's a different market for pop artists now where there’s more creative freedom than previously. Like, I can't imagine creating an entire album as Britney Spears and being told “no.”

I would do the exact thing; I would take it to radio and be like, “Fuck y'all.” Like I would absolutely do that.

As far as production for this cover goes, you played all the instruments, right?

Yeah. Usually, I work alone at home, like in this room completely by myself. I like to do everything myself and then if there's something I can't do, I'll usually have one of my good friends do it like drums or some guitar that is out of my skill range. But with this, it was recorded at Spotify Studio in LA and I was like, “Oh my god, I'm gonna be very out of my comfort zone.” I got there and it was a huge studio. There was a vocal booth and a piano room and then the big, massive room where the drums were and the guitars and the synths, and there was an organ and then the big control room.

I was super overwhelmed. But before I got out there, I made a demo of the song testing out what I wanted it to sound like here at home with the stuff I had. And then I went in; I started with that guitar, I sat on the floor in the middle of the main room and did my little weird guitar tuning and little strumming pattern, and recorded the whole song on the guitar. I sat in the room and listened to it for like an hour, formulating all my ideas. The next two days, I started building on it bit by little bit.

They had all these old synthesizers, which was easily the coolest part. They had this one old Juno and apparently it had been dropped a bunch of times, and it was super old and broken and it was breaking as I played it and I told them to hit record. I shouldn't have been playing it and it was doing all these things it was not supposed to do. It was phasing in and out and filtering and it was cracking and it sounded like it was breaking apart and ripping. You can hear it at the end of the song where it's just static and crackling and all this weird shit. It was one take; I was like, “leave it all in.”

Then I took it home and layered it all together. The only thing I added at home was the harmonica because I just bought it to put on my record. So I threw it on and it totally made the song. It was such a good, fast, simple, different process for me. Usually I like to get way too in my head about stuff and work on it forever, but it was probably just a week of working and a really simple, different process for me. I'm really glad I got to do it, it was really enjoyable.

Do you know how to play all those instruments confidently? Or do you figure everything out based on what sounds good?

Everything for me has always been about what sounds good. I took piano for about four years as a kid, so that is my primary instrument. I can play organ, I can play synthesizers; anything with keys I can figure out well enough just from my piano background. I took guitar for like six months and I was so lazy that my teacher literally quit on me. She was like, “I'm not doing more,” and I picked up the guitar probably about five or six years later again. I knew how to play like six chords and I was like, “Okay, it is what it is.”

I had the realization that if it makes noise, I can play it. I just have to figure out how to make it make noise that I think sounds good. So I don't really have any proper theory; like with drums, you do the kick and then you do the snare. As long as your rhythms are not super off, you can play the drums. I might not be able to play some crazy big rock drums, but I can play a little beat. I’ve learned way more about playing guitar through making guitar music, than I have from taking lessons. I learn how to play instruments on a need to know basis, but it's working for me. It could be going faster, but when you're trying to learn how to produce music and play instruments and do photography and learn Photoshop, you have to take everything in super small increments, because I don't really have a ton of time to devote to one thing, specifically, so it's just slow and steady.

Is being this hands-on important to you? Or is this just a product of living in a location where you're by yourself and don't have access to all the creative collaborators you might have in a major city?

It's a little bit of both because the only reason I started teaching myself how to produce is because when I was living in Florida, I didn't know a single producer. On top of not knowing anybody, I especially didn't know anybody who made the music I wanted to make because, even to this day, I've worked with other producers and they just don't make what I want to make.

I worked heavily with my friend, Matt Tomasi, on this entire record, and we worked very well together. But other than him, it's been very hard to find collaborators that make music in my style. I'm very nitpicky, I'm very specific. Instead of pissing people off by being like, “Move over, I'll do it myself,” I was like, “I'll just go ahead and do it from the very start.” It definitely gets a little exhausting doing it, but I very much like to be in the driver's seat at all times because my art is the only thing I'm really passionate about. I might as well do it myself because, even though I might not get to that high quality end goal as fast, I would much rather know that I did everything exactly how I wanted it.

All the music you’ve released sounds very singular and I think it comes down to little nuances, like adding a harmonica, that makes it unlike anybody else’s.

When I first started producing, I was like, “I can do whatever I want.” Whenever you don't know the rules, you're not bound to them, so I was doing whatever came to mind. I had zero idea how to produce and I was getting all these weird sounds. I made a lot of terrible music that I painstakingly tried to scrub off the internet, but those songs, even though I hate them now, they all taught me something and they all still exist in my current music in a way. So I think it was all worth it. Now I possess the skill of producing and I'm glad that I took the time to get my hands dirty and learn. If I have an idea, I don't have to call up somebody and be like, “Hey, I want to do this,” and hope they know what I'm talking about. I can just sit on my computer and do a couple clicks and then bam, I made it happen. It was worth the intense struggle.

I love that you said, “Whenever you don't know the rules, you're not bound to them.” There is something magical about entering any industry with a bit of naivete, and then the more successful you get the more it fucks with what you originally had, which was innate: if it sounds good, it feels good.

When I listen to my old music that's not anywhere but my hard drive, it's so different but still so me. Now in this recording process, it's been like: people are going to hear this, people are going to critique it, they're going to consume it. But when I started out, my music was never about if other people liked it, it was about if I liked it. I miss that freedom and I've been actively trying to push myself back into it, to where if I like it that's good enough.

That's been another thing I've liked about living out in Alabama: there's no outside influence. It's me and the music and that's it. No one whispering in my ear. There's this really funny tweet that says, "Papa John's is pretty good when there's not somebody whispering in your ear telling you it tastes like shit,” and that's how I feel about my music. I like my music better when there's no label executives whispering in my ear telling me, “You need to shorten that, you need to make it more pop friendly. It's probably not gonna chart and stream.” I'm like, “Fuck, who cares?” I'm making a body of work, I'm not making a collection of songs to stream.

What is your goal as an artist? So many people want to have streams and a hit single.

I always tell everybody on my team, “I want to be like, well, Enya. I want to be like Florence Welch, like Imogen Heap.” I never really care about having a song on the radio. The Billboard Hot 100 doesn't cross my mind, none of that matters. I want to build something that when I'm 100 years old and I look back on it, I'm like, “I had a really good time making that project and I'm really proud of the story that went into it.” As far as what other people would see with my career, I would very much like to be an artist that when people see me and listen to my work they're like, “Yeah, that's her.” I also really like Björk's career. Björk has always made exactly what the hell she wanted to make and people love her for it, they respect her.

If you have a crazy rise to fame, then you fall off just as hard. We’ve seen it since the beginning of the music industry. I really have no interest in going viral. That's all you ever hear about: “Did your song blow up on TikTok?” I just want to get to the end of my career and be able to look back and be like, “Everything I did was intentional and I was proud of it.” Florence Welch just put out a song that was like two minutes long, and it was her clapping and making breathing noises and then some acapella stuff. It was so out of left field for her, but you can tell that she loves it and is passionate about it. I want that for myself: to be in love with everything I do and be proud of it.

I need to listen to that new Florence song. If it really is just two minutes of her breathing and clapping, I’m already obsessed with it.

It's really cool, it’s called “Heaven Is Here.” It’s amazing, I love it.

Going back to “Everytime,” have you thought about how you relate to those lyrics? Was that a consideration at all when you were recording it?

I think the lyrics of that song are related to a situation that I have never experienced and hopefully never will. It was more of a song that I was sympathetic to, not empathic. It’s more of a warning to me. Whenever you enter the music industry, you hear all these horror stories. You hear about people like Britney and the struggles they went through to put out their music. [“Everytime”] was almost more cautionary in a way like, “Be careful, this is what the industry does to people with bright ideas. They beat them down and strip them raw of all their natural talent and abilities to use them and discard them.” So I've always tried to watch myself and be aware that there are snakes out there.

Do you find yourself to be a guarded person? Do you think that plays into the different places that you live?

It most definitely does. It sounds so silly, but you have to be because everything is so subtly insidious, especially in the industry, and I'm a very paranoid person. When I came out to LA for the very first time, I was aware of who I showed my demos to. I didn't send my demos out, I showed it to people in person on my phone. I felt like Lara Croft on a mission, making sure everything was careful. But I never want to get too careful, because I've met a lot of good people in LA. At the end of the day, I like to get out to where no one can get to me because I don't want to feel the constant bombardment.

There’s always something going on in LA and always something going on in NY, and I just like to have the peace and quiet to get myself together. I fly out for a week or week and a half and I’m like, “I know what I need to do, I know what I believe, I know what I want for myself and my career.” I try to keep my wits about me and not let all the glitz and glam of the Hollywood sign seep in and make me lose sight. It’s really easy because LA is such a magical place and I always think of the Lotus Hotel in Percy Jackson; it’s easy to get stuck there and not realize how much time has passed. When I’m back here, I’m like, “Whew, I’m back home safe. I made it through a trip to LA and lived.”

I relate to that. Going out in West Hollywood is one of the most horrifying experiences ever, and yet I still do it every time I go to LA.

Me too, it’s so much fun. I like to walk through WeHo with my friends, and go get a smoothie and a breakfast wrap and live that LA life. It’s fun, but my A&R and I always joke that the biggest gift I've ever given to myself is the power of saying “no” and knowing what you’re comfortable with and what rooms to put yourself in. I think that’s the greatest thing I've done for myself: just know that you don’t have to do everything, you can just say no.

Photo courtesy of Silken Weinberg