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‘All lights on me’ – Skillet’s Jen Ledger on transitioning from drums to front woman for LEDGER

Interview: Adrian Hextall

Photo Credit: Gina Monahan

When you’re a drummer and vocalist in one of the biggest rock acts in the US these days, to step out from behind the kit and stand centre stage as the front person for a brand new act, it takes a certain type of courage. Finding the faith in yourself to be able to present (what some of us always knew existed) the perfect voice to front and band and the charisma to hold an audience with tracks that your other band mates have helped you shape and make your own is no mean feat. Step forward then Jen Ledger, one quarter of Skillet, the multi million selling act from  Memphis, Tennessee and the powerhouse behind the drum kit. 

Born in Coventry, England, Jen started playing the drums when she was 13, relocating to the US when she was 16 to major in drums with a scholarship at Living Light School of Worship in Kenosha, Wisconsin. She joined Skillet at 18 (18!!) years old when the previous player, Lori retired. The band discovered Jen, when they attended church services in a city she lived at the time. Her touring duties commenced on the ‘Comatose Tour’.

Fast forward to 2018 and we caught up with Jen as her ‘Ledger’ e.p. is released. It contains enough for Skillet fans to be hooked in whilst offering Jen’s own take on music to make the tracks uniquely hers. With input from Skillet’s John and Korey Cooper and manager Zachary Kelm and producer Seth Moseley, Ledger sees Jen currently on tour with Skillet, essentially opening for herself every night. All the lights are now indeed on Jen! 

The last time we got to see the band in the UK was on the back of the ‘Unleashed’ tour. biggest headline shows to date and sold out venues. You must have been happy ?

JL: We had freaking fantastic time on that tour. I’m glad you got to see it. We loved doing this kind of clubs that are full of actual people that know your music and it was really powerful and we had a fantastic time on that run.

AH: We would imagine the next time you come back and I’m hoping you’ll do as you are doing I believe in the States at the moment, that you are effectively going to open for yourself.

JL: Yes. I am seriously hoping so too. Yeah, figuring out like European travel and getting band mates over there is like that’s something we will cross when we get to it but I am seriously hoping so too. Europe is like, and the UK especially, just so much fun playing rock music over there because in America it’s not as – there’s not as many people listening to rock here as much as in Europe and in the UK so all of us are hoping that that will work out.

AH: You know, the number of people I’ve interviewed recently that they’ve said exactly that as well. I mean, America used to be the staple place for rock music. If you wanted to make it big then it didn’t matter where you were from in the world, if  you could crack the States, that’s it. You were set for life.

JL: Absolutely. It’s kind of crazy that it has changed so much and you would imagine that rock music in America would still be like hugely embraced but yeah, it’s really weird and sometimes I feel like it has helped so much in Europe and in UK is that, you know, radio stations have embraced like newer, younger rock music maybe with the electric elements, they’re okay with that.

Whereas here in America they’re still really, really – there’s a huge rock culture that is against anything electronic and they will kind of dismiss anything that isn’t Metallica AC/DC so it’s kind of create a bit of a void in the middle. There’s the older rockers who loves the classic stuff. And then the younger people it doesn’t sound modern to them if it doesn’t have any of the electronic elements and so it’s created a little bit of a void for our younger generation not realizing rock music as much.

AH: For you then it must have been quite a gamble with the [Ledger] EP? You’ve got quite a mix of styles on there and two or three of the tracks, if you handed them over to a Euro club DJ, there’s a perfect trance mix that you could pull out of that. You could create a summer euro hit.

JL: Yeah. You could even do like, you could do dance remixes, you could do yeah, I totally agree with you. And it was a risk because you know, I’m in the rock market over here and if I come out with too many pop elements I’m going to be completely dismissed by the people that do love Skillet and the people have been fans of me for, you know, 10 years now.

Obviously, Skillet is my biggest influence and I’ve been touring the rock market for so long that those are the elements I am in, rock player and rock musician. I do really love pop music and my Dad had me growing upon the Beatles and Alanis Morissette and then as a teenager I loved the rock bands like Flyleaf and Linkin Park but I also loved Pink and Avril Lavigne and so I’m actually being true to my influences in this EP. It was what took us the most time because we didn’t want it to come out as Skillet part B. It needed its own identity and it needed to represent me.

It couldn’t be a replica of what we’re already doing so Korey Cooper and Seth Mosley [producer] really took the times work with me to make it kind of represent who I am as a musician and I feel like it came out really well, I feel super proud of it. It feels very much so like me with the rock part elements and it was a bit risky because obviously rock people would maybe embrace it more heavier but I just like I wanted to do music that really felt like my heart otherwise what’s the point? I’m happy to take the risk and I’m really, really excited about and I’m proud of what we came up with even if maybe some people are a little scared of some of the poppier influences.

AH: A lot of opportunity though as you say I mean, it’s going to definitely appeal more to those outside of the States. I think that you’re right there but I think it’s also giving you the opportunity to appeal to a much wider audience as well. I mean, there’s a lot of people over here that will embrace all those different sounds. The last three tracks that I’m listening to where I can hear those club influences and you know, they’re tracks that you could hear Beyonce singing, you could hear Rihanna singing them.

JL: Whoa. That’s huge. It makes me so happy.

AH: You’ve purposely steered away from the rock piece. I mean, obviously you’re going to appeal to your fans with having John [Cooper, lead singer of Skillet] singing Warrior with you so that ticks the box that draws the fans back in, doesn’t it?

JL: Uh-huh, yeah. I’ve noticed I just tend to not really write really poppy stuff and that wasn’t something I knew about myself when starting on the song writing role. It just became apparent as I was writing with people that I was like, ‘oh, this was too pop‘, you know. This is actually going to turn people off. I don’t want to come out pretending to be Katy Perry or something.

So I just have a lot of pop influence that I didn’t know would come out in my writing so much and that – I actually think it works really well though like as you said, it’s really cool to have more pop leaning choruses but with heavy music. It just makes me feel – makes you feel tough!

And I kind of miss hearing aggressive music with great choruses that is catchy too so it was awesome working with people that were able to understand what I was going for and like kind of working that fine line of not pushing it too far but still, you know, doing something you’re really excited about to, you know.

AH: I’m not surprised. And the track listing feels like it’s purposely done in the order that it is because it’s almost as though you gently lead people into the new you.

JL: Uh-huh. That’s really interesting. I didn’t think about that. I love that. I didn’t know that, you know. We just kind of picked in that order, yeah, because we wanted to make sure that the rock side was established early on. So that, you know, people aren’t afraid of the music like if you hear something too poppy as the first thing you hear, 50% of the people aren’t going to listen to the second one, you know. So that is actually probably more strategic than I knew but you worded it better than I would have.

AH: You do start with Not Dead Yet and then you’ve got Warrior following that I think, haven’t you? It’s a natural extension of the day job…

JL: Yeah. That’s exactly right.

AH: So the heaviest track on the album really is your opening one so it’s going to give you fans what they would hope for. Warrior then because you’ve got John in there. That familiarity for the fans remains but if you then stir them on wards, you’ve got this wonderful soundscape. As you say, it’s you rather than the band you’re playing with normally.

JL: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for noticing all of that. I’m really impressed.

AH: And tell me a little bit about how you manage to do this because of course, you’re working with Korey, you’ve got John there as well. It would have been very easy to drop into what you knew well so how did you force yourself not to?

JL: You know, a lot, it was different with each song like each song had their home little stories that led them to where they were but like the song like Ruins I had an idea for a chorus that I knew I wanted to write and I asked Korey, ”hey, I’ve got this kind of lyrical concepts, can you write a really sad musical piano progression for me?” And so she wrote one and I was like, no, that’s not it. Can you try again? I was thinking it more this way and then she writes another one. I’m like, that’s it and then we finished the song together and then a song like Iconic I had like this hook.  I wasn’t sure if it was just way too poppy, you know, and I can sometimes just get like a hook in my head but I think it would be a really cool song but I don’t necessarily know what to do with it and so that was a song I took to John and Korey and I said, hey, what do you think about this hook?

And Korey had this awesome music that it fit with and then the three of us finished that song together and I think because maybe I’m trying to be brave and not like shy back when I say I prefer this and don’t prefer that, you know, and it’s hard when you’re working with two of the most talented and successful writers, you know, they’re multi platinum selling writers. It’s really hard to want something and say hey, how do you feel about this? You know, it’s just really intimidating to throw your ideas out there honestly and so just learning though the – this is something I feel like I’m meant to be doing and the best way to learn is to not be worried about getting knocked down. Just throw the ideas out there and learn why they’re good and why they’re not good and so there’s a lot of overcoming myself and just choosing to be willing to have thick skin and throw stuff out there even if I feel stupid. Obviously it just does have a lot of my influence and one of the melodic songs came from something I wanted to write about or add bits and pieces and then finished it with other people and the Coopers were really amazing actually.

Kind of coming alongside rationalizing the things that I like and the things that I do well and they kind of let me shine in those things like I find it quite hard to finish lyrics a lot but I love writing melodies. So usually when we’re writing together they kind of just let me have a few moments to learn. They’ll just give me time then I’ll start throwing melodies out there and they’ll say ‘that’s the one’. We kind of know each other so well. We know each other’s strengths and we know I’m like if I’m at struggling with a lyric, I can ask John Cooper and he’ll have it in 10 minutes. He’s like a lyric machine. It’s just kind of cool because we work – Korey can write the most incredible music you’ve ever heard and it’s just awesome for the three of us when we work together. I feel like it’s a bit of a dream team. Same with Seth Mosley. He’s more of a pop leaning guy so me and him we have to rein ourselves in and not go too pop because the two of us could both be a bit more of that way and when he works with Korey it’s like the perfect blend of me like it feels like she’s got the edge and the aggression and then he’s got the pop leanings and together it’s perfect. It’s been really cool finding the right people to do this with because it was really exciting when it all came together. 

AH: You mentioned the ‘brave’ element as well. You’re stepping out from behind your comfort blanket because it’s very easy, even though you do sing, it’s easy to almost hide behind your drum kit.

JL: Absolutely. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to be that much of a shock to the system. That first night, you know, it was only like nine shows ago, I stepped out for the first time to open up the night with Ledger and I think because I played with Skillet and because I’ve come out to sing a duet here or there, I thought I’m sure I’ll be okay, I’ll probably feel kind of relatively normal but man, when I got out there and I saw those people staring at me and I don’t have John Cooper there to banter for me and then also the fact that all of a sudden I’m completely aware of my limbs and I don’t know what to do with my hands and feet all of a sudden and then I think the fact that it’s actually my heart and my songs and my voice now like these are my thoughts, these are the deep things that have been going on in my heart over the last two years.

It felt way more vulnerable than I expected it to and those definitely a side of me when I first got up there. It was like what were you thinking? Run, you know. And then I’d tell myself, no, this is what I’ve been working for and this is in fact my dream, you know, and it’s really scary right now. By the end of the show, I kind of found my fit in and got more comfortable and overcame that initial shock feeling of oh my gosh, I don’t like this feeling, you know, and I feel like you show up and get more comfortable now not being behind the drums but yeah, I really was surprised at how shocking that felt. I’m like, whoa, now I’m learning what to do with my arms and legs which helps a little bit.

AH: I was going to say nine shows in there must be something you pick up every show and you think, ‘I’m not going to do that next time and yeah, that worked well’?

JL: Yeah, exactly. For the first couple of shows I was like just trying to copy what others do. I know people are here to see the show so I don’t want to be boring so I was jumping around and all that stuff but then I was like, oh my gosh, I’m so out of breath. I can’t finish the sentence so then I realized okay, it’s great to jump around but you got to do it the right time so you can actually sing your parts, you know.

So different things like that I’m learning each night. Okay, like that was too much or that was probably a bit too boring but you’re singing was better but it’s just like learning, isn’t it? When I’m singing background vocals I have huge breaks between where I can breathe and all of a sudden I’m singing every single line so it’s more of the learning curve than I thought it would be.

AH: And we’re likely to get you after the US tour is finished, are there any plans for you [Ledger & Skillet] to come over?

JL: Yeah, we’re actually coming over to Europe for the summer festivals. I imagine that we’re coming to do Download but I’m not actually sure but I’d assume that’s the case. But Ledger we’re playing those dates I don’t think but Skillet will be and then after the summer festivals and then we’re talking about trying to get over there maybe for another head line tour and if all works out well, it would be awesome to do the same template where I could open up the night with my band and then play with Skillet for the closing of the night again.

AH: As a photographer at the last London show, the coolest thing happened and I’ll just mention so you could pass it on to John if you don’t mind, I transferred a couple of photos from my camera to my phone and threw them straight to Instagram and he actually liked and reposted one of the Instagram photos mid set, whilst you were all on stage! That was just about the coolest thing I could have ever experienced.

JL: Did you say mid set? Wow. I am actually pretty surprised about that. I’ll be like, hey, focus more on your set bro. [Oops… sorry Mr Cooper!]

AH: There is that. I don’t want to drop him in it but you know, that was pretty cool for me.

JL: That’s pretty amazing. Honestly, he’s such a good front man. He can do whatever he wants. It doesn’t matter. He’s just cool.

AH: He didn’t break his stride at all to do that. 

JL: Yeah, I need to learn. I just got to keep learning to be like him. Man, that’s really awesome. I’m pretty proud of him. Pretty cool thing to do.

Keep an eye on the Ledger website for more updates about live shows. The reception Jen has been getting has been wholly positive so it’s a show you should catch whenever you can. 

http://ledgerband.com/

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