BY JOHN PAYNE | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
It wasn’t until age 16 that Skillet’s Jen Ledger started to take drums seriously. Only when she tried out for the Young Drummer of the Year competition in England and made it to the top 12 did she started thinking about it as a career.
“I was the only girl that made it that far,” she says. “That was the first time I had really taken the drums seriously; before then I kind of did it as a hobby, and it wasn’t until I entered that competition that I said, Oh, I guess I can take this more seriously. I didn’t realize I had that in me.”
Now, 12 years later, Skillet’s tenth album, Victorious, is due for release in August. Straight outta Wisconsin, the multi-platinum and Grammy-nominated Christian hard rock quartet specializes in the sort of fist-pumping, uplifting rock that requires an especially passionate drummer behind the kit. Ledger seems to have been born for this role.
She grew up in Coventry, England, among a family that included older brothers who were both drummers. Her dad had been into rock and roll and raised the clan on a heavy diet of Beatles, Queen, and David Bowie. Ledger soaked it all in.
“We were all into music from quite a young age,” she says, “and as the youngest of four I did anything I could to impress my older brothers. I looked up to them and thought they were super cool. They were really good at sports and they were really good at drums and were always playing in bands, so I kinda copied them—I also got really good at sports and I started to learn the drums.”
After having taken drum lessons with a private teacher in Coventry, at age 16 Ledger journeyed to America to do a music program in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rigorous training and some serious competition from her peers got her playing chops together pretty quickly—though not her confidence.
“Being 16, being in America, being around all these incredible musicians, I became really insecure and started to doubt myself and to struggle performing, even playing in church for like 200 people. I was just so nervous, and I thought, Okay, time for me to quit, I don’t think I can do this anymore.”
Ledger decided to quit the drums and started learning bass guitar instead. But as fate would have it, her friendship with the sister of Skillet guitarist and keyboardist Korey Cooper led to a private audition for the band.
“I mean, the idea of performing in front of people—I couldn’t think of anything more frightening,” she says. “But I was praying about it and I really felt like I was supposed to do this, so I knuckled down and started working really hard again. And then I tried out for Skillet, and the rest is history.”
Ledger’s rise from being scared about playing for 200 people at church to her first ever tour with Skillet at Winter Jam—a Christian music tour with crowds up to 16,000—was not so much a trial by fire as it was a simple test of her own determination to succeed. First, she had to learn to hit hard.
“When I tried out for Skillet they had me play the Nirvana song ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ and I was really impacted by Dave Grohl’s massively passionate playing. Before then I’d only played in church, where it’s always like, play quieter! [Laughs.] It was always too loud. This was the first time I was really allowed to completely unleash in that way.”
Ever since, Ledger has made “the Dave Grohl passion” her very own rule #1.
“I always try and line myself up with the Dave Grohl way, which would be play passionately and with all of your heart. Really it’s about connecting with the audience and trying to give as much energy and passion as I can onstage in hopes that I can connect with all the people that are listening, rather than stressing as much about my technique and that side of things.”
The non-technical, play-from-the-heart approach that Ledger has maintained throughout her 12-year tenure with Skillet is not a regression from the more academically informed drumming of her student years. In fact, she says, it’s a progression—one which kicked in during the band’s live performance.
“Technique used to really lock me up, because I wanted to do everything ‘right’ and all these things,” she says. “Skillet’s done an incredible job helping me grow into a better player than I could ever be, and I’ve learned a lot from performing.”
And what she’s learned is that for her, drumming is more about the emotion, about the heart.
“When people come to a Skillet show,” she says, “they can tell I’m just giving it my all.”
Ledger, who has also embarked on an eponymous solo project in which she sings songs she’s composed, has learned a lot from the experience of stripping things like technique down in order to bring out the best in the song and the performance itself.
“I work with Korey and [lead vocalist and bassist] John Cooper of Skillet, who are both producers, and they’ve just massively shaped my drumming and songwriting,” she says. “As a player, you can kind of get locked up in your own thoughts of what you think should apply to this song, or, Well, this drum part could be really cool, whereas they approach the drums as a way to enhance the song.”
For her, it’s important for the drummer to consider getting out of the way and enhancing the hooks and choruses of any particular tune she or he is playing.
“It’s about doing whatever best suits the song,” she says. “Sometimes it means just doing four-on-the-floor, sometimes it means you do add a little flair and flash. That realization has been a big turnaround in my thinking about the drums.”