Not So Innocent Anymore: An Interview With Actress and Musician Rainey Qualley

Rainey Qualley is gunning for the big time.  It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see her selling out stadiums in only a few years. For now, though, you may know Qualley (who is the eldest daughter of actress Andie MacDowell), for her seductive scene on Mad Men wearing a long chinchilla coat with not much on underneath, coquettishly auditioning for Don Draper’s character during the show’s finale. Lately, Qualley is going in a different direction, for the moment, than her mom and focusing on music. For the past two years, Qualley made a splash in the country music world while living in Nashville – with repeat plays on the radio, opening for Willie Nelson and a set on the iconic Grand Ole Opry. However, pop music is Rainey’s passion and she has moved to Los Angeles with a set of demos and is ready to release a “debut” album of sorts. The pop music she is making is a distant departure from her country hits. Her voice has a tinge of late-90s Top 40 R&B, and when she crashes into her refrains you can hear shades of Sade’s angst and assured sexiness. There is also a Lynchian darkness to her music that blends kitsch and popular music sensibilities, a la Julee Cruise or Chris Isaak. Whatever the case is, her music has plenty of room in the contemporary zeitgeist. We got a chance to catch up with Qualley during her recent transition from recording in New York and moving to Los Angeles, to ask about her quiet upbringing in the country, her passion for pop music, opening for Willie Nelson and what it was like to act half-naked in a fur coat on Mad Men.

Autre: You grew up kind of under the radar, in Montana and then in North Carolina. What was it like growing up there?

Rainey Qualley: Spending my early years in Montana was very idyllic.  I remember playing outside catching salamanders in the streams and riding horses and building forts in the forest.  We moved when I was 9, and I am thankful for my southern roots having grown up primarily in North Carolina.  I think growing up in those areas kept me a little bit sheltered and innocent.  But I was always very eager to move away.

Autre: How did you know you wanted to get out of there, go to Nashville and LA to perform? What was that like?

Qualley: I started dancing when I was 2.  And I grew up in a creative household.  So I've always been drawn to the arts.  I kind of realized I could sing when I was a kid and always loved doing it behind closed doors - I used to be very shy.  My dad taught me to play guitar when I was a teenager.  I went to regular college for two years and hated it.  And then when I was 19 I moved to New York and crashed on a friend’s couch while I figured out what to do.  I didn't really have a plan I just knew I had to start trying.

Autre: You’re based in New York now, do you feel like that’s your new home or do you sometimes dream of going back to country living?

Qualley: I spent the last month in New York writing music.  But I’ve actually been based in Nashville for the past 2 years.  As I write this, however, I am on a plane moving back to LA.  And no, I don't see myself going back to the country.  My dream is to have a little place in LA with my sister where we can have some bunnies and chickens and whatever animals we want in the back yard but still have all the perks of living in the city,     

Listen to an exclusive clip of a track off Rainey's Qualley's upcoming album

Autre: Your sister is a dancer and your mother is an actress, did you ever want to rebel against that and do something completely different?

Qualley: No, I've always wanted to make music and act.  For me, it's really nice having family members who are in similar fields.  We all help each other out and inspire one and other.  Plus we are sympathetic to the difficulties that this kind of profession breeds.  

Autre: You debuted an album, “Turn Down the Lights,” back in June and you have a new album coming out. In the future, do you see acting or music as your primary focus?

Qualley: I think music and acting compliment each other.  I am the type of person who always has to be working on something or else I feel like I'm wasting time.  So having multiple creative outlets keeps me from going crazy.

Autre: “Turn Down the Lights,” is predominantly a country album. What attracts you to that genre and are you going in a different direction on your new album?

Qualley: I actually kind of fell into country music. I took a writing trip to Nashville two years ago and the very first song I wrote started playing on XM radio.  So I was like, "Ok, this seems like it's working out. I should try country music.”  I have had so many wonderful opportunities the past two years - I got to open for Willie Nelson at the Ryman, I played the Grand Ole Opry multiple times - things I only ever dreamed of.  But ultimately, pop music is what I'm passionate about.  The new project I'm working on is entirely different from anything I've released in the past.  And I am aching to share the new songs.  

Autre: What was it like opening for Willie Nelson? 

Qualley: I got to open for Willie two nights In a row at the Ryman auditorium, it was very surreal and humbling. It was also my first big show after signing with CAA so I felt a lot of pressure to impress the agents. And to give a performance worthy of the venue and the headliner. The whole experience was a thrill. The shows were really fun and the audience was incredibly warm. I only got to met him briefly after his show on the second night and he was so cool. Plus I fan-girled and got photos with "trigger" his guitar back stage.

Autre: You had this iconic role in the seventh season premiere of Mad Men. Everyone was talking about this “Mystery Girl.” What was your reaction to entering the spotlight like that?

Qualley: Being on Mad Men was dope.  I hadn't really watched the show before I got cast.  But once I started, I couldn't stop.  So it was cool to have been a part of, even though it was such a small role.  I was only in one scene, so I really didn't expect people to react they way they did.  But it's flattering that people liked the scene.  And no it wasn't my first role.

Autre: You’ve been involved with a few films now, including one with your mom. Can you tell us a little about those projects?

Qualley: I've worked on a few independent films, and they were great experiences.  I've been taking kind of a hiatus from acting to focus on music.  But I'm really excited to get back to LA and start up again.

Autre: What next for you?

Qualley: The big thing on my mind right now is my pop project.  I have about 13 demos recorded already that I am so so so psyched about.  The tough part now is deciding what I like the best.  But I'll be releasing new music soon. 

Autre: Favorite era for music, film culture?

Qualley: I don't really idealize any one era the most.  I love Motown/Soul music so the 60's were pretty great for that.  The 60's also saw some beautiful folk/singer-songwriter stuff come to life.  Sick pop music came out of the 80's and 90's, 2000's.  There's magic in every decade I think.  But, if I could travel back in time I'd like to spend a week or so in medieval civilization.  I'm pretty happy existing right now though.

Rainey Qualley's debut album will drop sometime this summer. In the meantime, follow her on Instagram. Text by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Photographs by Kevin Hayeland. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE