October 24, 2018 01:00 PM

In 2014, Rachel Reinert was on top of the world. As the lead singer with Gloriana, she had toured with Taylor Swift, opened shows for Rascal Flatts and Sheryl Crow, and her band had won ACM awards for new vocal group of the year. But in her heart, Reinert knew she wanted to pursue a solo career — she always had.

“I gave the band eight years and three albums,” Reinert tells PEOPLE exclusively. “We had an amazing ride and we went on an incredible journey together, but I started to feel like my window to be a solo artist was getting narrower and narrower.”

So in 2016, she took a leap of faith and left her Gloriana bandmates, Tom and Mike Gossin, to pursue a musical career of her own. However, she found that people stopped returning her phone calls. She couldn’t get a record deal, and without the name of Gloriana behind her, she could barely even book a gig.

“When I left, I had all the optimism in the world,” Reinert says. “I was very jaded. There were a lot of people that I knew from my past that I thought maybe I could rely on or that I could call up; suddenly everyone’s unreachable. No one can even respond to an email.”

“I did feel like a lot of people turned their backs on me,” Reinert adds. “I was mad because I was like, ‘I made a decision to follow my heart and I don’t want to feel like I’m being punished for this.’ But at the same time, it was also kind of like, ‘It’s business. If they’re not willing to be a part of this chapter of my life then they’re not meant to be in it.'”

So she used this as fuel to begin building her own community in Nashville. Having moved to Music City when she was just 16, Reinert says she never felt like she had a sense of belonging in the town, having always been on the road with her band. Instead of giving up and moving away, which she admits she considered doing countless times, she worked to make connections and mend relationships to prove she was serious about songwriting and singing.

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Rachel Reinert
Robby Klein

In order to stay afloat, Reinert also had to sell her home, which she bought during her peak years at Gloriana when money was rolling in.

“I didn’t have this big master plan when I left,” she says. “When you go from having a steady income and a mortgage and all of a sudden you have zero income and a mortgage, your money runs out really, really fast. I had to make a tough call. But this was my dream and I was willing to sacrifice whatever I need to in order to continue to pursue that.”

“This whole experience has been the most humbling thing for me,” Reinert adds. “I might’ve had my head in the clouds a little bit and didn’t really have much of a sense of reality. I bought a beautiful, brand new home when I was 24 years old. Not many people can say that they got to do that. I have all the gratitude in the world that I was even able to do that in the first place.”

In July, she released her first song post-Gloriana: a track entitled “Cool,” with Reinert’s new California-country vibe, which she wants to be her signature sound, even though she admitted it took her a little while to find that voice and get away from the sound she was used to with her band.

“There was a lot of trial-and-error trying to find the right creative partners,” Reinert says. “Writing with some of the people I’d written with Gloriana in the past, I was finding that I felt like I was writing Gloriana songs so I had to go back to the drawing board.”

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But now, Reinert feels like she’s finally found her true sound, and her new powerful comeback ballad “Dark Star,” which releases Friday October 26. She co-wrote the song with Joe Pisapia and K.S. Rhoads, and it tells the story of her leaving her band and finding her own way in Nashville.

“I’d heard this rumor that I had given up, or I was done with my music career, and that really upset me, because I was like, ‘No, I’ve just been hiding out, putting my head down and putting the work in, and writing songs,” Reinert says. “And just because I’m not parading it around on social media all day every day doesn’t mean that I’m not still here and that I’m not still doing it. I wanted to express that frustration.”

“It was like, ‘Even though I feel like I’m free-falling through the atmosphere right now and people are forgetting about me, I still have this light in me that people just haven’t seen or heard yet,” Reinert adds. “I just gotta wait for my time.”

“I get afraid I’ll be forgotten/already had my chance and lost it,” Reinert sings in the song’s first verse. “Nothing’s ever what it seems/I was trying to live someone else’s dream/I get afraid I’ll be remembered/Not for the fire, but the embers.”

While Reinert admits the song is a “combination of sadness and angst,” she says it’s about finding the optimism she continued to find through her whole journey.

“I’m a little less sad these days and a little less angsty now,” she says. “I think sometimes you have to go through the breakdowns to get to the breakthroughs. I wanted to be authentic and honest about my experience, because it is a very human experience.”

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Rachel Reinert
Robby Klein

As for how her relationship with her Gloriana bandmates? She admits that they still keep in touch civilly.

“I left. Had I stayed, would we still be a band?” Reinert ponders. “I can’t totally say. Possibly. I think when you’re the one who actively decides, ‘Hey, I’m walking away from this’ of course people are inevitably gonna be disappointed or probably hurt. I can’t really speak on their behalf. But you spend every single day together and then suddenly you pull the plug on that — that relationship’s just not gonna be the same anymore.”

“We’ve all drastically moved on with our lives,” Reinert adds. “I feel like it’s just one of those chapters that I really wanted to put behind me, but not in a negative way. I just feel like I’ve grown up, and it just feels like it was another life ago in this weird, weird way. But at the same time, I don’t carry any animosity.”

While she has no hard feelings toward her former band members, Reinert says she wouldn’t have traded a single day on her journey.

“If it brought me to who I am today, which is a much more grounded, calm, spiritual, grateful person, then it was 1,000 percent worth it,” she says. “I felt like I was stuck in a creative rut with the band. Then after leaving, I had so much inspiration that flooded through me, and created so many songs that I’m so insanely proud of. It’s really nice to be in control of my own thing. This is mine, and whether I fail or I fly with this, I at least get to say that I did it my way, and I did it how I wanted to do it, and I stand by it.”

“The one thing I never thought was, ‘I made a mistake,'” she adds. “I never thought that I screwed up or that I should have stayed in the band. At the end of the day, I made a choice to follow my heart, and how can you argue with that?”

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