In 2021, musician Red Leather used his phone battery’s last 1 percent to call a friend to save him from a suicidal situation in downtown Los Angeles. In December of that year, he suffered a heart attack after relapsing. One month later, on Jan. 5, 2022, he drove drunk to Las Vegas in the middle of the night and overdosed in a hotel room.
Now, Red Leather has been sober for more than 20 months, gained 350,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and 850,000 followers on TikTok, and is set to release his debut album, RENO, on Nov. 17.
“Once that happened in Vegas, I officially was done,” Red Leather said. “It was almost like an act of God that I almost died, but I didn’t, and I had the opportunity to change. It was just insanity that I literally went from death’s doorstep to famous on the internet, like, 30 days later.”
Red Leather, who never shows his face or reveals his legal name, grew up in Reno. Music was an interest of his from a young age, and singing and the guitar became an “escape” for him. While he played in other bands in his youth, his lifelong dream was to write and perform original material.
His life in Reno, however, eventually led him into the throes of a years-long addiction to alcohol and hard drugs, specifically cocaine—an addiction that followed him when he went to pursue a full-time music career in Los Angeles in 2021.
“I had decided, ‘Hey, I’m gonna be in Hollywood, I’m gonna try this music thing out for real,’” he said. “I spent a lot of time busking on Hollywood Boulevard. I was still deep into my addiction during this whole thing, and it got really dark, man. I was really lucky to have a couple of buddies, these guys who I work with, who would, like, be picking me up from motels on Sunset Boulevard.”
It was during his time playing on the street that Red Leather developed his anonymous persona. He found his characteristic fringed Stetson in a vintage shop in San Bernardino and realized passers-by paid more attention when he played while wearing it. Red had always been a favorite color of his, he said, and the rest of the outfit came together piece by piece.
The choice to remain anonymous provided protection from old habits and bad influences—as well as the freedom to tell his story honestly.
“I definitely went through some shit in Reno and Vegas around drugs and dealers and the wrong crowd,” he said. “I was like, if I’m going to pursue a career in music, I don’t want to attract the wrong attention from these people who I used to associate with. On top of that, I think by being anonymous, I can fully talk about my life and my addiction and my recovery without having to be judged by what I look like or who I am—anything like that. That’s been a pretty big blessing.”
Many of Red Leather’s songs are based on true stories about his time as an addict, and how his journey to sobriety also led him to spirituality. His most popular song, “Sins,” recounts his experience with suicidal thoughts and his quest for absolution—with his lyrical testimony sonically buttressed by a gospel choir.
Red Leather’s music combines the hallmarks of his rock ’n’ roll influences with elements of outlaw country like twangy, scratchy steel string riffs and raucous rhythms fit for clapping and stomping boots. The most potent weapon in his arsenal is his voice, both powerful and distinct, equally capable of soaring choruses and lilting melodies, like in fan favorite “The Only Time It Rains in Hollywood.”
Another song, “Dakota,” laments a lost love, with an accompanying music video filmed in Reno. It features scenes from South Virginia Street, the Gold ’N Silver Inn and the Peppermint Hippo gentlemen’s club. Red Leather said the video was meant to be an authentic expression of his life at the time.
“I chose to film it there because this is a true story about a relationship that I had, and a girl that I did wrong,” he said. “I chose my addiction over her. At times, it was hard to film it on set, because I was reliving that shit. I have spent a lot of time downtown in the casinos, staying at the motor lodge by the Eldorado. Besides me having a red hat on, it wasn’t very different from what actually happened.”
In L.A., the combination of his visually striking persona, musical talent and unvarnished subject matter eventually led to attention from producers. He was approached about making an album and began to record in marathon sessions at studios around the West Coast. His producers, he said, were the first ones to push him to use social media, and joining TikTok quickly gave him an eager audience and an outlet for his addictive personality.
“For, like, the first 100 days in my sobriety, I posted on TikTok three to five times a day,” he said. “I remember looking down at my phone after I had dinner, and a video that I posted right before my meeting, an hour and a half later had, like, 30,000 views. And, you know, having the kind of addict brain that I have, I was like, ‘Oh no, they gave this to the wrong person.’”
Buoyed by his online fame, Red Leather spent the last year finishing his debut album, named after his hometown and slated to be released later in November. He freely admits that his relationship with Reno is complicated—he loves the city and its surrounding natural environment, but returning to town sober means navigating new experiences and reminders of a life he’s tried to leave behind. These contradictions, though, are an integral part of his story, and by extension, the album.
“The whole album is about being from Reno, my experiences there,” he said. “It’s a journey—a physical journey from Reno to L.A. It’s a spiritual journey from sin to redemption, and it’s also a journey from addiction to recovery.”
While Reno may serve as the inspiration and backdrop for the album, he’s also found that, to his fans, his message and experiences transcend any one town—and that his music serves a grander purpose.
“I get messages, like, daily from people who will say something like, ‘I really resonate with your music,’ or even, ‘The music saved my life,’” he said. “I wrote this album to help myself get through this shit. But I’m finding that the most meaningful part of it is actually helping other people get through stuff. I almost see it as part of my whole mission, is not only to tell my story, but to help others who are struggling with any kind of darkness in their life.”
Red Leather will perform on Friday, Nov. 3, at Cypress Reno, 761 S. Virginia St., in Reno. Tickets are $20. For tickets, visit www.tixr.com/groups/cypressreno.