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