On a sunny afternoon in Cleveland, Siena Bella, a 19-year-old budding pop singer who recently reached 1 million followers on TikTok, is sitting in Spider Studios, a recording studio tucked inside a converted barn in Olmsted Falls, a few hundred feet back from owner Ben Schigel’s house.
Though Siena’s voice has been recognized for its soulful, Old-World sound, today she is looking more school-girl-like, fresh faced and rosy cheeked with a curtain of long brown hair that she keeps tucking behind her ears. She’s dressed for comfort in oversized camouflage pants, a light blue hooded sweatshirt from Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon III tour, and a pair of white Nike Air Force 1 sneakers (size 8 1/2 in men’s).
“People are always commenting on how big my feet are,” she laughs.
Though the studio is inconspicuous, it has served as the home to some legendary music moments. Cleveland artist Machine Gun Kelly recorded the vocals for “Home” here in 2017. The rapper Doe Boy has recorded here, and so too have LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who secretly came out here one night during the NBA lockout to record a few pieces they’d written themselves.
Today, Siena rolls back and forth on the chair in the studio as she talks about the new songs she’s previewing. She’s nervous and excited, and talks a lot with her hands. Before playing one of her songs, she adds a warning: “I’m going to go back and rethink the lyrics maybe, tweak some things in the beat. There’s a lot I hear that I want to redo.”
Words are important to Siena. Along with her voice, which some say is reminiscent of Billie Eilish, Siena is perhaps most known for her relatable, addictive (and often sad) lyrics.
Her latest track “Lights Out,” which has been listened to more than 60,000 times on Spotify since its July release, feels a bit like you’ve been dropped directly into the mind of an anxious teenager. The song is about what happens when your brain won’t stop running with bad thoughts. Siena’s voice is layered throughout the piece, creating a sort of echo chamber that amplifies that panicky feeling.
She wrote it after she got rear-ended on Christmas Eve of 2020 while running out to get a gift for her mom (Fox 8 news anchor Stefani Schaefer). Siena wasn’t hurt — and neither was the other driver. But afterwards, her mind wouldn’t stop going back to the moment of the crash.
“Any time I drive now, I think, OK that person’s going to hit me,” Siena says. “The whole song is about those voices in your head that don’t ever stop talking.”
Given the tragedy that happened in her youth, it’s not
surprising that some of Siena’s songs have dark undertones:
When she was 10, her father was in a work accident that
left him with extensive brain damage and Siena with a
sense of the fragility of life.
“I’m just better at writing emotional, sad songs,” Siena sighs. But some of Siena’s newest tracks take those sad lyrics and make them danceable. She’s working with new producers to add some bouncier beats and she’s particularly excited about a new song she’s previewing today, which is very different from any of her previous releases. It’s poppier, more upbeat, even if the lyrics don’t reflect it.
She primes the computer and the song begins. In the back of the room, Schaefer taps her open-toed high-heeled sandal to the beat, while Siena — her face focused on the computer screen — nods her head. They are in sync, like they’ve been for years.
The unreleased song is a shimmery, soulful pop ballad about love and teenage relationships and how it’s not always as great as it looks on social media. It’s a Taylor Swift-like anthem of self-empowerment with a chorus that gets lodged in your ear. You could easily imagine the song being played over and over at super loud volumes by recently scorned teens trying to take back their power and dignity. But, in another light, it can also be interpreted as sort of a justification for the path Siena is currently taking, which does not involve boyfriends, or partying or really much of a life outside of music.
If Siena’s life had gone as she’d planned, she would be a sophomore at John Carroll University studying communications and possibly having boyfriend issues of her own. But it was hard to imagine that life after one of her pulse-racing dance singles, “Skin,” landed on Spotify’s Viral 50 chart in Spain in early 2020. And when she opened up for a Machine Gun Kelly concert with her friend and mentor, E-V, and she heard the sold-out crowd of 13,000 people cheering for her at the Wolstein Center in December 2019, there was no going back to that life.
So, the night before Siena was supposed to start school in September 2020, she and her mom agreed that she could put school on hold to focus on her career.
“School, for a lot of people, it’s there to show you what you want to do, but I already knew exactly what I wanted to do,” Siena says. “School would have been the backup thing — but why do the backup thing when I’m trying to do the first thing?”