One month after graduating, Sereena Barga moved into an apartment in Nashville, Tennessee, with no job, no prospects and less than $2,000 in savings.
“I moved out here, and I didn’t know what to expect,” Barga said. “I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t even know how to start with the music thing. I had songs written, and I was like ‘OK, I’m here. Now what do I do?’”
Ever since she was little in Greenville, Ohio, the 2014 Ball State graduate always dreamed of making it big as a musician.
In middle school, she played the keyboard in her heavy metal rock band before switching to a guitar, poodle skirt and saddle shoes for her performance at the local vintage car show with her oldies music group, “Girls at the Hop.”
However, her true instrument was always her voice, which has carried her to more than 19,000 streams on Spotify with her debut single “You Love Me,” jump-starting her career in Nashville.
Barga’s inspiration for “You Love Me” came after she graduated.
With no luck performing at local music joints, Barga said she felt pressured to take a break from music and get a job.
Her first “big girl job” was working as a publicist promoting Christian artists, but the job only added to her sadness.
“I knew I wanted to get in the music industry, and when I got that job as a publicist, I was so excited,” Barga said. “But, I realized I didn’t want to be on that side of the music. I was miserable. I didn’t want to be promoting other artists when I was an artist myself. I wanted to do what they were doing.”
Barga promised herself after she quit her job, she would be the artist.
A promise hard to keep
Barga found her resolution challenging after she received a phone call on Aug. 1, 2015, from her parents.
It was about her little brother, Sam.
That night, Sam, 19, attended a party with some friends where there was alcohol. He was sober when he hoisted himself into the passenger seat of his buddy’s truck, but the driver was drunk.
During the drive home, the vehicle teetered from one side to the other until it favored one side too far. The driver spun the wheel to set the truck straight, but it proved to be a fatal overcorrection.
After the call, Barga’s heart was brimming with grief, but it was suffused with hatred and guilt for herself most of all.
“If I’d have been there,” Barga said she thought to herself, “maybe he wouldn’t have gone to that party. He wouldn’t have gotten into that truck.”
As she drove home and watched Nashville’s skyline disappear behind her, all she could see was a city that seemed to take more than it was willing to give.
Nashville took her money — she was barely making enough to pay rent, her car payments and have enough for groceries every week — and now it seemed to take her brother too.
Finding her way back
Barga’s mother was happy to have her home after Sam’s death, but she knew her daughter wouldn’t find her big dreams in their small town.
“‘Sereena, music’s what you love. You gotta go back’,” Barga remembers her mother telling her.
After taking her mother’s advice and returning to Nashville, Barga quit her job as a publicist and worked a desk job for a window company before producer Nate Cornell noticed her two years later.
Cornell and Barga met at a local singing competition, where he said she made an impression on him.
“There [were] a lot of things in that first meeting that told me that this wasn’t a person who was just wishing something into existence and hoping that it happens,” Cornell said. “Most of the time people just wait on the sidelines for success to come to them, but she was somebody who was going to take action.”
In late January, Cornell and Barga began producing songs together and working to release her first music video for “You Love Me” in the summer.
When creating the music video, videographer Adam Dobkin said Barga “was the storyboard” for the song. Much of the narrative was based on Barga’s experiences in Nashville, including learning of her brother’s death.
Even though the song is written from the perspective of accepting love from a significant other, Barga said it’s a song about finding spiritual healing after immense grief and accepting the love of God.
The song reflects the new view she had of the world after she was “saved by God” in July 2018.
“When I got saved, I realized I was walking on this planet thinking I was being punished and that God hated me because he took my brother,” Barga said. “When the Holy Spirit revealed to me what I’d been pushing down, I realized, ‘God loves me. God actually loves me.’”
Barga said she plans to share the new love she has found with her songs coming out at the end of the year.
She is working on releasing Christmas-themed music this holiday, but her new single, “Mind Abuse,” drops Friday. The song is a deeper look at her journey working through her brother’s death.
“If you would’ve asked me what my goals for music were just eight months ago, I would’ve said I want to write a hit song so I can tour, and so I can have a fanbase and make a lot of money,” Barga said. “Now, it’s completely different. I want to inspire people. I want to show people that there is good news out there. You don’t have to be miserable or depressed because there is a light, and there are good things that will happen if you follow that light.”
Contact Adam Pannel with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AdamPannel.