From drum­mer to front­woman, Jen is step­ping out from be­hind the kit

Rhythm - - CONTENTS - Words: David West pho­tos: Gina Mon­a­han/press

It’s been 10 years since Jen Ledger made the fate­ful de­ci­sion to au­di­tion for Skil­let, the plat­inum-sell­ing Amer­i­can band that spans the worlds of rock, metal and con­tem­po­rary Chris­tian mu­sic. She went from play­ing in church to rock­ing are­nas overnight and, with the en­cour­age­ment of Skil­let’s John and Korey Cooper, she started sing­ing too. Now, she’s step­ping out as a front­woman with her de­but EP, sim­ply ti­tled ‘Ledger’, and has been pulling dou­ble duty on the road, open­ing the shows with her solo ma­te­rial be­fore re­turn­ing with Skil­let for a head­line set.

It’s been a mo­men­tous jour­ney for the drum­mer from Coven­try who has dealt with ev­ery­thing from stage fright to her hair catch­ing on fire. Now she wants to in­spire young mu­si­cians. “It’s some­thing I take in­cred­i­bly se­ri­ously that young peo­ple look to me and copy me in what I do,” she says. “I’ve met many young girls that have been like, ‘I started learn­ing drums be­cause you in­spired me.’ It al­ways amazes me, I can’t be­lieve my life has had that much in­flu­ence into some­one else’s. That’s why I wanted to write my own mu­sic, I’ve des­per­ately wanted to

use this plat­form to be a source of light and hope and some­thing ac­tu­ally good. I hope that through my mu­sic I can be lift­ing peo­ple up rather than tear­ing them down.”

Is it strange be­ing on­stage and not hav­ing your drums with Ledger?

“It’s un­be­liev­able, hon­estly. What do I do with my arms and legs? I’m in­cred­i­bly aware of my own limbs. I never re­alised how stretch­ing it would be, be­cause I’ve been play­ing with Skil­let for some years now and step­ping out a lit­tle bit to sing ‘Hero’ or a cou­ple of songs here and there. I didn’t re­alise how dif­fer­ent it would feel not hav­ing John Cooper there to not only front the whole band but to com­mu­ni­cate be­tween the songs and make it not look weird. I was like, ‘Oh, this is all on me!’ That first day I was like, ‘What was I think­ing?’ I had to tell my­self, ‘No, this is what you want Jen, this is what you’ve been work­ing to­wards for six years, so don’t let the stage fright knock you out.’ It was def­i­nitely more of a shock to the sys­tem than I thought it was go­ing to be!”

What are you play­ing in your solo set?

“For my Ledger set we only have fif­teen min­utes, we have three of the songs from the EP and then we’re off­stage for the next band, so it’s re­ally quick. It’s a great way to start find­ing my foot­ing. We’re play­ing ‘Iconic’ to open up the show, then a song called ‘War­rior ‘which John Cooper comes out and sings with me, which makes it feel even more sur­real af­ter all these years work­ing in Skil­let and hav­ing my lead singer come out and sup­port me. Then we end with ‘Not Dead Yet’.”

How do you deal with the adren­a­line? You have to come back on­stage later and play drums!

“I’m not go­ing to lie, the first week of the tour, I wasn’t pre­pared for how much my body was go­ing to take a hit from just a fif­teen-minute set. I as­sumed it’s no big deal, we play ninety-minute sets with Skil­let some­times. And not only that, I’m not drum­ming so I’m not com­ing off sweat­ing to death like I do when­ever I play drums, so I was sur­prised that the first cou­ple of nights play­ing with Skil­let clos­ing out the night, oh my gosh, I’m re­ally hav­ing to fo­cus. The fact that I was stretch­ing my­self so far out of my com­fort zone and step­ping into some­thing that in many ways feels like a des­tiny mo­ment, like this has been years in the mak­ing, there was so much pres­sure on me or maybe I didn’t quite re­alise the toll it was go­ing to take emo­tion­ally. The first week of tour it was, okay, do a lit­tle bit of a work­out to get your blood pump­ing again be­fore you go out for Skil­let so that I can keep sharp.”

How do you ap­proach song­writ­ing?

“I like to write when I’m driv­ing in the car and I’ll think of a hook or a melody and I end up sing­ing the melody into Logic and writ­ing mu­sic around it. Al­ter­na­tively, I’ll pro­gramme some­thing on Logic so that I can write to it. I pre­fer writ­ing with other peo­ple be­cause they’re mu­si­cally way stronger, like Korey can play gui­tar and key­board un­der­neath it and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I can to­tally write over this.’ Or the other way around, I’ll bring her an idea, I’ll have a few melodies and a cho­rus not fin­ished and I’ll write with her. It’s dif­fer­ent each day. Some days you go in and start from scratch and it’s amaz­ing, some days you go in and you’re like, that sucked! But it’s been re­ally fun and it’s been awe­some be­ing in the room with John and Korey who are these crazy suc­cess­ful writ­ers, so to be able to have learned un­der their wings, I’ve been watch­ing them and tak­ing notes and try­ing to fol­low in their foot­steps.”

Where were you work­ing?

“We mainly worked in the back lounge of our bus. I’m full­time with Skil­let, it’s not like I have time to go into the stu­dio of­ten, so it was a lot of send­ing files from

the back lounge of the bus to [pro­ducer] Seth Mosley, and maybe I’d fly in Seth to do a bit of work in the stu­dio and then I’d fly back out to tour. But we even did some of the vo­cals in the back lounge. There’s a video on Youtube of me sing­ing into a chair with a cush­ion over my head be­cause we had to do the vo­cals late at night. We were in a ho­tel one night and I’m like, ‘We’ve got to get it done, they’re due to­day!’ It’s been a bit of an ad­ven­ture.”

Did you play drums on the EP?

“No. It wasn’t like Skil­let where I get to go into the stu­dio and play all the stuff. It was def­i­nitely a lot of writ­ing parts on Su­pe­rior Drum­mer and the truth is they sound in­cred­i­ble. I’m not dis­ap­pointed with the prod­uct at all, I think it sounds phe­nom­e­nal, but it was fun in a weird way to be writ­ing parts that you don’t have to spend months prac­tic­ing be­fore you go into the stu­dio. It was weirdly free­ing and I think it turned out well, al­though I would have loved to have played on it.”

Tour­ing drum­mers of­ten say they get re­ally good at play­ing their set, but ev­ery­thing else gets rusty. Is that your ex­pe­ri­ence?

“Def­i­nitely. 100% my ex­pe­ri­ence. Some­times I think when I was a kid I was learn­ing all these rudi­ments and dif­fer­ent things that you just don’t get to use tour­ing. I’ve been tour­ing with the same band for ten years, so I’ve got the set songs down re­ally well, but it’s not like you have a drum kit back­stage where you can go work on your chops. Skil­let is known for be­ing one of the busiest tour­ing bands in the rock mar­ket, so I get to do my warm-ups and stuff, but re­ally I’m just sharp on all the things I’m play­ing ev­ery night and if I had to go back and do the stuf I could do as a teenager, there’s a ton of it where I’m like, ah, I’ve lost a lot of that, that’s for sure!”

You joined Skil­let as a teenager, What was it like grow­ing up in pub­lic? Were you com­fort­able be­ing thrust into the spot­light?

“It’s like a dou­ble-edged sword be­cause the one thing I’ve re­ally not liked about it is the fact that my en­tire fam­ily is still in Eng­land. My sib­lings have got­ten mar­ried and had chil­dren and I’m still out here do­ing the same thing I was when I was eigh­teen, which in some ways can make you feel sad, like ev­ery­one is mov­ing for­ward with­out me. But it’s not ac­tu­ally the truth be­cause the one thing I’ve found the hugest hon­our, and re­ally hum­bling in a won­der­ful way, is I’ve no­ticed I’ve been an in­flu­ence to young peo­ple. When we look at who the loud­est voices are in our cul­ture, it’s re­al­ity TV stars, Dis­ney stars gone wrong, and I just like to think I can be an ex­am­ple of some­thing else to our young peo­ple.”

It must be grat­i­fy­ing to have kids start drum­ming af­ter watch­ing you?

“It’s just sur­real, es­pe­cially some­times I feel like I still have to over­come my­self to play the drums. Some­times I still strug­gle with stage fright. To know that it’s em­pow­er­ing to some­one else, gosh, get over your­self Jen! This is phe­nom­e­nal. Know­ing that you can help other peo­ple step out into things that they wouldn’t have felt brave enough to do, man, that’s a cool thing to do with your life. Those things just make me so ex­cited to be in­volved in mu­sic at all.”

Isn’t ‘Not Dead Yet’ about stage fright?

“We were tour­ing through Europe and I started wak­ing up in the night with panic at­tacks, it was re­ally dis­ori­ent­ing. Af­ter bat­tling through some­thing that felt that dark and that de­feat­ing, I thought surely this isn’t some­thing I’ll strug­gle with any­more. It was last year or so, I went on stage and those feel­ings started to creep back in. I came off­stage and grabbed Korey, ‘I can’t be­lieve af­ter all these years this is com­ing back, es­pe­cially af­ter wrestling through it last time, I re­ally thought I beat this’. I said, ‘What if this never goes away for me?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Then, Jen, you fight. You fight while there’s breath in your lungs and un­til the day you die you fight, and you don’t let fear rob you of your own life.’ And that was the night where I was like, okay, this might never go away for me but the one thing I can never let it do is make me give up. I wrote ‘Not Dead Yet’ be­cause of that con­ver­sa­tion with Korey and just know­ing this might al­ways come back for me, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let it stop me.”

Do you have any ad­vice for deal­ing with nerves?

“My faith def­i­nitely helped me through that. I do feel a cer­tain des­tiny thing, God is us­ing me with this and he’s help­ing me. I know not ev­ery­one can

“Know­ing that you can help other peo­ple step out into things that they wouldn’t have felt brave enough to do, man, that’s a cool thing”

re­late to that feel­ing, so some­thing else that has been re­ally key for me is not com­par­ing my­self, not look­ing to the left and right and think­ing, ‘Well, I can’t do this like him and I can’t do this like her.’ I’ve found that com­par­i­son is the most crip­pling thing and it def­i­nitely feeds in­se­cu­rity and nerves. I love to play but I wouldn’t say I’m su­per tech­ni­cal and I thought that would make me dis­qual­i­fied for some­thing like this. In­stead though, the fact that I love to play and I have an in­cred­i­ble time on­stage have ended up be­ing the very things that peo­ple love about my play­ing. It’s funny how the things you think could be a weak­ness can ac­tu­ally end up be­ing a strength as long as you find the free­dom to ex­plore them. For peo­ple with nerves I’d say, stop look­ing at what you can’t do and look at what you can do well and en­joy those things. Don’t worry about the rest, be­cause the au­di­ence loves see­ing some­one hav­ing a good time more than they love see­ing some tech­ni­cal ro­bot.”

What have you learned about work­ing in the stu­dio from your first stu­dio al­bum with the band,

Awake, through Rise, to Un­leashed?

“What I’ve learned is to not get wrapped up in your own parts too much. What I loved with Un­leashed par­tic­u­larly was work­ing with a bunch of dif­fer­ent pro­duc­ers and let­ting peo­ple give you ad­vice and tips. We worked with one pro­ducer called [Kevin] Churko who is a drum­mer and I thought the parts that he was chal­leng­ing us to do are so unique and they re­ally high­lighted the song. I’ve learned, okay, maybe this makes me look bet­ter as a drum­mer, but ac­tu­ally play­ing this will high­light the cho­rus and high­light the hook more. I’ve been learn­ing to get out of the way of the song and to do what suits the song rather than what makes you look like an in­cred­i­ble drum­mer.”

How did you achieve your drum sounds on the record Un­leashed?

“I work with the pro­ducer with what­ever they’re used to, so you’ll go into Brian Howes’ stu­dio and he has his own drum kit that he likes with the cer­tain mics that he likes. Churko is the same, he has his own drum kit and he has his own drum sound, and then some pro­duc­ers are like, ‘I’m go­ing to pro­gramme this, and you can play it and we’ll layer them in to­gether’, so it’s dif­fer­ent with ev­ery pro­ducer and you’ve got to play it by ear. ‘Feel In­vin­ci­ble’ has a lot of pro­grammed drums and not a lot of live drums, so that will sound dif­fer­ent on the ra­dio ver­sion than on the live ver­sion, be­cause ob­vi­ously we’re not go­ing to do it with no drums on the parts that were pro­grammed. It’s ac­tu­ally kind of fun be­cause you’re like, what’s go­ing to trans­late the best live? I’m not go­ing to pull out elec­tronic pads, we’re go­ing to do this as a rock band. Some of the parts are al­ready re­ally nailed down in the stu­dio so they trans­late per­fectly live but some of them, es­pe­cially with those hav­ing a lot of elec­tronic in­flu­ences, I have to cre­ate my own parts that give the same feel­ing but that come across bet­ter live.”

What have been the high­lights af­ter ten years with Skil­let?

“What was re­ally mov­ing for me was my first time play­ing the O2 Arena when we were open­ing up for Nick­el­back. It was in­cred­i­bly over­whelm­ing be­cause I left Eng­land at six­teen and no one ever imag­ined I’d be a rock drum­mer. I was the girl who played at church and not only that, I was re­ally timid, so to come back to Eng­land all those years later, I had school friends, old fam­ily friends, so many peo­ple trav­el­ling from around the UK to see me play and it was in the O2 Arena with Nick­el­back. How the heck did I get here? It made me feel weirdly vul­ner­a­ble be­cause a lot of these peo­ple don’t know me as a drum­mer and all of a sud­den they’re see­ing me with this le­git rock act and I’m this rock drum­mer who has a ca­reer now, it’s like a new side of my­self was be­ing pre­sented to the world that I knew be­fore. This is who I’ve been for the last few years but all of a sud­den my old world and my new world were con­nect­ing, and I found that re­ally spe­cial.”

“I left Eng­land at 16 and no one ever imag­ined I’d be a rock drum­mer. I was the girl who played at church”

Ledger steps out from be­hind the drums to take cen­tre stage with her solo act, “What do I do with my arms and legs?” she quips

The tran­si­tion from drum­mer to front­woman has been quite a chal­lenge for Ledger

Ledger says that her faith and band mem­ber Korey have helped her to fight her on-go­ing strug­gle with stage fright

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