“Basically, within the last several months I have kind of allowed myself to ask for things that I want,” says Rainey Qualley, slouched in platform sneakers and a mesh T-shirt on a couch in a Midtown Manhattan photo studio.
What the 26-year-old wants is a career in music — but by her rules, which has involved a bit of growing up, self-assessment and seizing the reins.
This story first appeared in the September 21, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
It also has involved a switch from one type of music to another. On Friday, Qualley continues to re-brand herself as Rainsford when she debuts her latest electro-pop single, after a start in country music. “I think the more that I really ask for what I want and find specific things that I want to do, it’s just transformative,” she says.
She has a role model to look up to when it comes to focusing on specific types of careers. Qualley is the eldest daughter of actress and model Andie MacDowell; together with younger sister, “Leftovers” actress Margaret Qualley, she was raised in Montana and North Carolina, purposely away from the entertainment world’s fuss, before flocking to it at age 18. “I was very eager to get out of the small hometown scene,” she says. “So I moved to New York to try to make all that happen.”
She learned guitar from her father, former model Paul Qualley, before studying music history and theory at Belmont University in Nashville for a year. Blame it on the Tennessee influence or the years in Montana, but her first songwriting efforts were in country music. “The first song that I wrote there, they started playing it on XM Radio, so I was like, ‘OK I guess this works, this seems like I am good at this,’” she says.
Songs like “Me and Johnny Cash,” which was released last year, rooted her in the country genre. But while her voice suits the music, Qualley came to realize her taste was elsewhere. “I think it was a great growth period and I got to open for Willie Nelson and play the Grand Ole Opry, so it was incredible for a lot of reasons,” she says. “But it wasn’t ultimately the music that I really loved and [wasn’t] what was fulfilling for me as an artist.”
In the last six months, she’s been toiling away at renovation and rebirth, starting with adopting a new artist name: Rainsford. “I have been doing everything entirely independently,” she says. “I’ve been reaching out to different producers that I like, and everything from the aesthetic of photos to the web site, I’ve been totally in control of. For me, it’s awesome because I feel like I’m capable of a lot more than I had been given the opportunity to be in control of.”
The shift from country to pop — a trend sparked by former country megastar Taylor Swift doing the same — has also led to some courting by fashion houses, be it front row at Miu Miu or dressed for the Chanel dinner at the New York Public Library this past spring. Like the music, the style bit has relaxed since her crossover and Qualley differentiates between her on-duty and off-duty tastes. “I feel like if I’m trying to look hot or whatever, I just feel not like myself, like I’m trying to be something else,” she says of dressing for events rather than the vintage thrifts from L.A. she regularly wears. “I like wearing clothes that, I guess, are a little bit strange. Clothes that don’t make me feel like I’m trying too hard.”
Following New York Fashion Week, during which she took in the Creatures of the Wind show, she might travel to Europe for the collections, while visiting her sister on set — if work on her upcoming EP allows. Mostly, though, she’ll feel it out as it comes. “I don’t exactly know the full plan,” she says, “because I’m kind of making it up as I go.”