Siena Bella Siena Bella
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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?”

The start of Siena’s career could be traced back to an Instagram message she sent the summer before her senior year of high school at Gilmour Academy. Siena had been writing songs for years, but she didn’t know what to do with all of them. So, she just kept a majority of them in a file on her computer.

And then one warm, balmy night, her best friend asked Siena if she would come to a music thing downtown.

That night, E-V — the nationally known DJ from Cleveland who is often credited for helping shepherd musicians such as Kid Cudi and Machine Gun Kelly to early success — was performing. Siena snapped a selfie of herself and her friend rocking out to his beats and tagged E-V in her Instagram post. 

“I didn’t think he would see it,” Siena says. But E-V did see it — and then reposted the picture on his own Instagram account, which made Siena freak out a little. And then Siena thought, Maybe he could help with my songs

So, she nervously typed out a direct message to E-V, said that she was a singer, asked if he could make a beat so she could make a song to it, and hit send.  

One could argue that Siena’s life had been spent preparing for that moment. As the daughter of one of the top news anchors in Cleveland, Siena grew up understanding how transcendent it can feel to connect with your audience. And how comforting it can be when people you don’t know come up to you at Giant Eagle to share joy in your wins and sadness in your sorrows. Siena learned how much work went into making exchanges on camera seem effortless. The alarm clocks that go off at dawn, the need to always have a happy face in public, the rush to get stories done before the show even starts. And how those same things that made people feel like they knew you so well could also be dangerous if you didn’t protect your boundaries.

“Looking back, it was really important for me to grow up in that,” Siena says.

From a young age, Siena believed that being a rock star was an attainable career. Often, when a popular band, like the Jonas Brothers, would come to the Fox 8 studio, Schaefer or Siena’s dad, Roger, would let Siena and her brother, Race, come to watch them perform live. Sometimes, some of these stars would chat with Siena, and as she looked at them, she realized that they were just kids like her and her brother.

In truth, she never had a reason not to believe. Siena’s grandmother Patti was a New York City actress and model who appeared in ads for brands such as Coca-Cola. She returned to Ohio in 1968 to start an etiquette school that she later converted to a school for performing arts.

And Schaefer, before she became a newscaster, had been a musician herself. In second grade, she and her older brother, Thommie, toured the country singing for the Bob Hope: USO Troupe. Later, as a teen, she and Thommie teamed up under the name Thommie and Sissy Schaefer: Something for Everyone. In 1983, they played six shows a day at Geauga Lake.

“Music has always bonded us,” Schaefer says. “So many families have their own family businesses or other things that bind them together, but music was ours. It runs in our blood. We didn’t have a choice.”

Since she was 6, Siena was constantly scribbling lyrics in her notebook. Memorably — in second grade, a year after attending a fundraiser for the Rescue Village animal shelter —  she went home and wrote a song about abandonment with lyrics so complex and sad, they made her parents stop in their tracks. 

“Our mouths were open. We had goosebumps,” Schaefer says. “She was talking about rescuing a dog, and bringing it home, but I remember Roger and I looking at each other, because it sounded like she was talking about losing the love of her life. That’s when I remember thinking she has a gift.”

To get practice onstage, Siena starred in musical productions. In grade school, at Saint Joan of Arc School in Chagrin Falls, Siena played the titular role in Annie, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and Maria in The Sound of Music. And while other eight-year-olds were singing “Feliz Navidad” at the school Christmas show, Siena chose instead to belt out Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” to thunderous — if a bit bemused — applause.

“I just love Adele,” Siena explains. “She was the first singer I ever connected to. At the time I didn’t really know what her lyrics meant, but I just really loved that song.”

All the while, Schaefer, who used to teach voice lessons at her mother’s school, would sit at the rehearsals with a big notepad, writing notes for how Siena could improve, how she could say a word differently. In the car on the way home, Schaefer would say, “OK, here are all the things we have to go over.”

In fact, on April 27, 2012, Siena was sitting at a dress rehearsal for Annie, waiting for her mom to come through the doors and help with choreography. But when, instead, her grandmother hustled through the doors, she knew something was wrong.

Siena’s grandmother told Siena and Race that their dad had been at an accident at work. Their lively, fun, dare-devil of a dad had been installing solar panels on a roof of a church 12 feet above ground when one of the boards on the scaffolding gave out. Roger fell to the ground, hitting his head. He was flown to MetroHeath with extensive traumatic brain injuries. Doctors told the family they didn’t think he would survive the night.

But Roger didn’t die — instead he sat in a coma. When he finally awoke months later, he needed to relearn how to walk and talk and eat. The brain injury also permanently affected both Roger’s long-term and short-term memory.

“He didn’t remember having kids or getting married,” Siena says. And when Siena and her brother would go visit him, he wouldn’t remember that they’d been there the day before.

“We learned not to ask him questions,” Siena says, “because it’s hard when he doesn’t know the answer.”

The experience affected the family on a cellular level. Roger is now in a long-term care facility and Siena, Race and Schaefer have clung to each other even more ever since. Schaefer didn’t encourage her kids to get their driving licenses until they were past eligible driving age (Siena got her license at 18; Race at 17).  

“I couldn’t have another accident in my life,” says Schaefer.   

Those experiences taught Siena at an early age about the frailty of life and how you must run toward the things you want.

 “When something like this happens to you, you think about life so differently — you just realize every moment, you can never be sure of anything,” Siena says.

Within minutes of sending the message, E-V wrote Siena back saying: “Sure, I’ll send over some beats.” Siena sent him some of her songs, and E-V was impressed.

“It wasn’t that good of a production,” E-V says, “but you could hear the tone on her end. It was amazing.”

They kept communicating — Siena writing songs to E-V’s beats, and the two messaging back and forth about sounds. Then one day, E-V suggested Siena and Schaefer meet him at Spider Studios to record a song.

As an in-demand DJ and electronic dance music artist who has DJed for celebrity events and spent more than 14 years performing in venues around the globe, E-V has developed a sort of second sense for what will resonate.

“I kind of see the ‘It Factor’ and talent before a lot of people do,” he says. And in Siena, he saw future greatness: in her sound, in her songwriting, in her versatility. 

“You meet all these people who have a skill and there’s always something that’s missing,” he says. But when he met Siena and Schaefer, he knew they were good people, and had the talent, magnetism and work ethic to go along with it.

When COVID-19 sidelined E-V in Cleveland in March 2020, he offered to take Siena under his wing — the way he had with other artists such as Aaron LaFette — but on a deeper level. He’s connected Siena with Machine Gun Kelly’s bandmates (they spent a session jamming and recording together in Los Angeles). He introduced her to producers, such as Dish, who previously produced hits for artists such as EarthGang and Chinese Kitty, and Rami Eadeh, who previously produced hits for artists such as Kid Cudi and Big Sean. He secured the invitation for her to perform at the Machine Gun Kelly Christmas concert in 2019. And he has deep belief in Siena’s future success. 

 “One year out, I want her to be rocking stages all over the country,” E-V says. “Two years out — all over the world.”

For most of recent music history, to hit the Taylor Swift level of success as a pop artist, you needed a record label and a fleet of press people and marketing professionals to elevate you across the globe. An album could make or break depending on where it was placed on an end shelf in a music store, or how often it was played on the radio, and record labels helped.

But thanks to the advent of social media, artists don’t need labels to launch their music into the world. They can use digital services to upload their songs to streaming platforms such as Spotify and then promote themselves through their social media feeds. TikTok, in particular, has been a helpful platform for launching musicians in recent years as many of the platform’s viral trends revolve around songs and audio clips that function as background for dances or lip-synchs.

Take Lil Nas X’s song “Old Town Road.” The song’s Wild West imagery struck a chord among Gen Z listeners — and inspired them to repost the song with their own cowboy-themed videos and memes. The song’s popularity on the site transferred to the public sphere — and Lil Nas X catapulted to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart without ever having been signed. 

So in winter 2019, E-V suggested Siena work on her TikTok account to help elevate her own music career.  When she asked him what sort of videos she should post, he just sort of shrugged and told her to be authentic.

“It’s really easy to get into thinking, Well, what do people like? What’s big right now? What’s the trend?” she says. But success, for her, has always come easiest when she took her own path.

One day, in October 2020, it was raining. The concrete patio was wet and there was a new dance Siena wanted to try. She went outside and slid down the slanted patio for a video.

“It looked like I was skating without a skateboard,” she says.

Siena showed the video to Schaefer, who told her it was cool, and she started posting a slew of these videos of herself “skating” down the patio, to different trending TikTok sounds. Sometimes, she’d add props like a Nerf gun to the dance. Other times, she’d have her mom do things like chase after her with a broom while she slid around. It was that video, in fact, that catapulted Siena to TikTok fame. The rapper Snoop Dogg and the actress Viola Davis shared it to their own Instagram accounts. The video has since been liked by 2.4 million people worldwide.

Siena’s popularity has attracted brands who have taken note of her model looks, skater-like clothing style and huge numbers of followers. She’s currently sponsored by the clothing brands Hollister, ASOS, Adidas and PrettyLittleThing. The catch, though, is they are not sponsoring her for her music, but for her skating. This worries Siena’s producer, Dish. Siena’s challenge is to show people she’s more than just a TikTok person who slides around, he says. To be taken seriously as a musician, she needs to convert fans of her dancing into fans of her songs. 

“Siena’s done incredibly well for herself, especially with her TikTok following. Now it’s trying to use that platform to promote her music,” Dish says. “That’s been her frustration, like, OK, how can I show people that music is not something I’m doing just because I’m famous on TikTok? Siena was already a talented musician and it’s just trying to get people to understand that.”

E-V disagrees.

“You don’t have to be limited to just one thing in life,” he says. “Kanye sells clothes now and he makes more money selling clothes than he’s ever going to make in music. But that doesn’t mean he can’t go work on an album for a year.”

Indeed, the money gained from TikTok sponsorships is helping pay for Siena’s “Haunted” music video, a new song about someone haunting a space.

“Anytime you go into a space, there’s something about the room or a couch that reminds you of the person,” she says. 

In her head, Siena sees herself sitting on couches outside for most of the video. Her challenge, now, is acquiring the couches. She doesn’t want to spend a fortune on them, though — especially since her original idea was to set them on fire.

The crowd of roughly 15,000 people at the Historic Crew Stadium in Columbus are hanging over the metal barriers at the Breakaway Music Festival, hoping to, well, breakaway.

On stage, E-V’s jumping up and down, his arms are pumping, and he’s playing Machine Gun Kelly’s song “My Ex’s Best Friend” and the crowd is screaming the lyrics, “I can’t get enough of it,” back at him.

When his set is done, E-V beckons for Siena. She bounds on stage, her brown hair down, loose and swinging. She’s rocking a pair of red and black Motocross pants, a vintage white T-shirt and her stylish white Nike Air Force 1 shoes.  When she tells the crowd of mostly Ohioans she’s from Cleveland, they erupt.

Matching the crowd’s energy, Siena bursts into her new, as-yet-to-be-released anthem, “Nothing to Me,” a song about what happens when you’re consumed by a bad relationship and then, are finally, able to get over it. The song has a sort of rock-electropop vibe, a frenetic pace Siena mimics on stage.  She rocks side-to-side and points her hands at the crowd, and they point their hands right back to her, and it feels like they are absorbing and reflecting back the hurt Siena is singing about.

“You took over my brain like a disease I couldn’t shake,” she sings. “I don’t need a bottle, no pill to swallow, I don’t feel anything. You mean nothing to me.”

When the song ends, Siena walks toward the edge of the stage, then looks up at the sky, as if giving thanks to God. Her body pumping with adrenaline, she thinks, This is all so worth it

But in truth, these events — as all big life events — are always a little bittersweet, since it makes Siena realize how much her dad is missing, and how much he would have loved to be here. Later, she’ll tell him about the experience on the phone, the same way she did when she told him she amassed 1 million TikTok followers, and he’ll be really nice about it. And then 15 minutes later, he will have forgotten that she’d even told him.

“It’s a hard thing to accept,” she says.

In so many ways, though, she is on stage because of Roger.

“He showed me that life is short, don’t wait,” she says.

Off stage, there are dozens of other people trying to physically reach her, like her mom and Race. A few days before the show, Race had been diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a rare but life-threatening condition. He was fine and recovering, but Schaefer had flown out to Philadelphia to be with him, and they watched the event from his hospital bed through videos Siena’s videographer sent them over text.

“Each time I perform it just shows me I want to work harder and harder so I can keep having these moments,” she says.

But, a month later, Siena has returned to life in Cleveland, living at home with her mom and saving up money for the future.

In October, instead of standing on stage in front of thousands, she’s busy trying to strip off soundproof foam squares she’d impulsively put up in her bedroom a few nights before. She’d been up late writing songs and wanted to listen to music, but she didn’t want to wake up her mom, so she plastered the bedroom with foam to help muffle sound. She was supposed to attach the foam to a piece of plywood first, to help preserve the walls and, instead, she stuck them directly to the wall. When Schaefer saw the foam the next day, she had a fit and ordered Siena to take it down.

“I think I ruined the walls, so I get why she’s mad,” Siena says.

But, taking it down is taking forever. And while it may not be glamorous or even easy, it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket of all the things Siena needs to accomplish in the near future. By the end of November, Siena hopes to drop her next single, “Haunted.” In the meantime, she has to arrange a photo shoot for the cover. It’s a dark song about the memories that stay, even when a person is gone, so to mimic that feeling Siena wants to be photographed at night in the street, which she’s never done before. In a few weeks, she’ll start teasing the song on her TikTok and social media accounts. And after that, well, who knows?

Siena has had some music labels reach out to her. She might eventually sign with them. In the next five years, Siena would love to put out a full-length album. And sometime, after that, she would love to be filling stadiums with a world-wide tour. Siena knows how hard it is to make it in the industry, but she feels a fire under her feet and hears the murmur of a clock ticking.

“I just want it so bad,” she says. “I’ve never chased anything except for this.”

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