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Meet LI's Morgan Saint: A singer-songwriter on the verge of stardom

The Mattituck native was signed to a major-label record deal fresh out of college, when the biggest concert she had played was a weekend gig at a Riverhead winery.

Morgan Saint may soon become a household name. The singer-songwriter from Mattituck has appeared on "Conan" and "Good Day New York," and has been featured in Vogue. In August, she provided backstage access at a rehearsal at the Vail-Leavitt Music Hall in Riverhead and at the Life is Beautiful Music & Art Festival in Las Vegas. Those closest to her talked about her skyrocketing career, and Saint shared some thoughts on how she writes her music. (Credit: Randee Daddona, YouTube / Team Coco, The Hang Productions Inc; Photo Credit: Gildersleeve family)

Morgan Saint knows that this isn’t the way the music industry works.

The 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Mattituck, who released her second EP, “Alien,” on Epic Records, last week and will start a national tour opening for lovelytheband Monday, Oct. 15, at Bowery Ballroom, got signed to a major-label record deal fresh out of college, when the biggest concert she had played was a weekend gig at Diliberto Winery in Riverhead.

“That was the extent of my performing,” says Saint, laughing as she sits at the kitchen table in her Manhattan apartment. “And there was no performing really. It was just me and my guitar, sitting in the corner super quiet.”

She shakes her head when she recalls her first meeting at a major label, set up by family friend Stefano DiBenedetto of The Hang Productions, who has worked with everyone from Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Linkin Park to Taylor Dayne and Expose.

“Honestly, I think he specifically didn’t really explain to me what these meetings were or what they could bring because I had no idea how the music industry worked,” Saint says. “And I’m kind of grateful that he did that because I think I would have been terrified knowing what I do now. Now I know how hard it is to get a meeting or two.”

She went to a meeting with Republic Records where they asked a legitimate question. “They said, ‘We love the music and it’s super cutting edge, but have you ever done a live show before?’ ” Saint recalls, smiling. “I was like, ‘Well, I played at a winery.’ ”

That’s when the Republic execs told her that they were looking forward to seeing her progress as an artist and to see her perform. “Of course, Stefano is like, ‘We’re working on a live show. And I’m like, ‘Oh, we are?’ I had no idea what was going on.”

Saint, whose real name is Gildersleeve, says she has always loved music, but she never really thought she could become a musician.

“It just became my outlet,” says Saint. “I’d come home every day after school and sit at the piano and learn something new on YouTube or just start making things up. And I was singing from the minute I came out of my mom, I think, so it’s just something that I always love doing.”

But doubts set in early. And when she tried out for Mattituck High School’s Select Chorus and didn’t make the cut, Saint decided to focus on her love of art instead.

“I grew up watching ‘American Idol,’ and I think that was the worst thing for me because you see these big, belting voices, and you think that’s what it takes to be a musical artist,” Saint says. “At a young age, I was like, ‘I don’t have that kind of voice.’ I thought, ‘I can’t do it. It’s not for me. It’ll just be my side passion.’ ”  

When Saint enrolled at Parsons School of Design to major in illustration, she funneled most of her creativity into her visual art.

But she was so inspired by her senior project — a multidisciplinary book called “All the Ways,” which combined her paintings and photography with her graphic design skills — that she wanted to continue it by writing an original song, also called “All the Ways.”

It was that song that DiBenedetto heard Saint play at one of her winery gigs in the summer of 2016. “It melted me,” said DiBenedetto, who is now her manager. “I wanted to encourage her.”

He introduced her to singer-songwriter Cass Dillon, who was shifting his focus to producing, building a studio in Baldwin, and they hit it off immediately.

“I sent him what I had written and he said, ‘I really love this,’ ” Saint recalls. “I had some extra money from graduating, from gifts, and I realized I wanted to just turn what I’ve written into something that I could just have for myself. I love coming up with ideas and then actually turning them into something that I can hold on to. It gives me a sense of satisfaction as an artist.”

It was a simple recording session — just Saint and her acoustic guitar — but she was thrilled by the results. “I loved the process,” she says. “I loved being in the studio . . . I told Cass, ‘I’m writing a lot right now. Let’s do another song but this time let’s try to find a vibe sonically that matches my energy and the story that I’m trying to tell.’ We did that for the next song I wrote, called ‘You,’ and I feel like we both were like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we found that sweet spot we were talking about and looking for. From there, I just kept recording and working with him and learning so much on the production side of things and being able to contribute more. By the time the summer was over, I had like five songs that I felt really strongly about.”

Her plan was to release the songs on her own, but DiBenedetto told her that maybe a record label would be interested in the songs, which had the confessional quality of Lorde, combined with a bit more trip-hop grooves. “We got some responses immediately,” DiBenedetto says. “We all knew something was there. We just needed to find someone interested in developing an artist.”

While Saint waited to see what would become of her EP, she went to work at the family home décor business Renee’s in Mattituck. “It was cool because I was working for my parents, and I was also making music so I felt so fulfilled and it all really helped me through what was a personal tough time in my life . . . I think it’s hard in general just being at such a pivotal transitional moment — going from school your whole life to no school.”

It was just before Thanksgiving 2016 when DiBenedetto told Saint that Epic Records wanted to meet her.

“He said, ‘They really love your music, and they want to fly you out to L.A. in two days,’ ” Saint says. “I wanted to know what’s the point of going out there and what could that lead to and he was like, ‘Look, we’re just going to do it and see what happens. And, no pressure, just be yourself.”

DiBenedetto says he didn’t want to stress out Saint. “She’s a sensitive spirit,” he says. “You hate to have the industry get her smashed down and crushed. She’s happy just making music for herself.”

But a meeting with L.A. Reid, who was the president of Epic Records at the time, was just too big to pass up. And once they were there, Saint picked up on how big simply when she saw people in the office react to the meeting and how intensely they tried to prepare her for it.

“As I walked down the hallway, I remember thinking, ‘I should give myself a pep talk,’ ” Saint says, with a laugh. “But for some reason I was not that nervous. Maybe it’s because I’ve never felt nervous playing before at the winery. Of course, no one was really watching me then.”

Saint plugs her phone into a speaker and starts singing three of her songs. She sings without a microphone and wonders if anyone can even hear her voice, though she realizes that they knew she could sing. They wanted to see if she could perform.

“She did what she was born to do — connect people through her music,” DiBenedetto says. “[Reid] wouldn’t let her leave the building. He wanted to sign her on the spot.”

Saint signed with Epic Records as an artist that afternoon and then walked downstairs to sign with Sony/ATV Publishing as a songwriter. “It was all so fast,” Saint says. “When I got home to New York, I had to hire a lawyer.”  

Since that whirlwind, Saint has gradually adjusted to her new life. She released her debut EP “17 Hero” last year and opened for Goldfrapp on its national tour.

The constant is that she still keeps working on music, learning more and gaining confidence as she goes. That confidence is on display in the songs of “Alien” and in her new live show.

“She looks like a rock star onstage now,” Dillon says. “It’s amazing to watch. She always had a voice and a thread through her songwriting. But now she has found new creative elements to apply to her songs. She uses production as a tool to allow songs to take shape. I’m so happy for her.”

Another constant for Saint is that she continues to fiercely control the other artistic aspects of her career, including the visuals that accompany the songs.

And she takes that hands-on control very seriously. Saint basically did everything to record the visual for her new single “On Fire,” which features a picturesque North Fork pastoral scene gradually marred by a car fire. As gorgeous as the final product was, behind the scenes, it was a mess, laughs Saint.

“I was running around trying to find a car for under $600 that I could set on fire,” she says. “And you know none of those cars work, so I’m trying to figure out who can tow it and who is going to allow me to set a car on fire on their property? But I’m very specific about what I want the space to look like . . . So I’m insane and sprinting around the North Fork for like two days before we shot it, and it was the scariest thing. We thought we’d be able to put the fire out ourselves, and it ended up not happening.”

“It was very D.I.Y.,” she adds, laughing. “We thought the car was going to blow up. I wanted to do something simple, but beautiful and interesting . . . But in the footage you can hear us screaming, ‘Get back! It’s going to blow up!’ That’s how it goes . . . Glamorous, right?”

WHO Morgan Saint

WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, Bowery Ballroom, 6 Delancey St., Manhattan

INFO $18; 877-435-9849, ticketfly.com

SAINT SOLO

In an age when teams of writers and producers are assembled to help a new artist establish herself, Morgan Saint stands out by going it alone.

“I’m proud that I wrote every word of every song that I’ve ever released,” says Saint, who has also only worked with one producer, Baldwin’s Cass Dillon. “Every word is truly coming from something I’ve gone through.”

It’s no surprise considering how poignant and personal Saint’s lyrics are. Here’s a look at some of her choicest words:

“Mama told me not to play with glass when I was young / Held on tight, waiting for my hands to come undone / Broke my skin, broke my heart, broke the wall near the TV room” “Glass House”

“We are just a different breed / The type that you can misread / You’re just full of sick schemes, broken dreams / Choose a team by any means / Don’t you have some place to be?” “New Regime”

“Your thoughts were dancing on the window of the M train / No blood, no guts but I saw the pain / I saw you crying but you wouldn’t let me see your face / You’re trying to hide it, but you can’t hide it, I can’t even hide it” “On Fire”

“I cut my hair when I was 21 / I told my mother that it was just for fun / But what she didn’t know is I was changing / And what she didn’t know, my heart was rearranging” “Momma, Set Me Free”

“You’re yellow coated like the bracelet on your right hand / Distant echoes tell me you are my holy land / Two faces cemented in the same stone / Thin walls hoping to stand on their own” “My Sunshine (For You)”

-- GLENN GAMBOA

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