RIFF RADIO: Jen Ledger’s hard rock ride that almost never was

SACRAMENTO — Jen Ledger is in an upbeat mood hours before her evening playing double duty: drumming for Skillet and fronting her own band, which will open the show at Ace of Spades. The band just arrived after a nine-hour bus ride from Portland the night before. Ledger doesn’t mind the long journey because it gives her some extra time to catch up on sleep.

Following this interview she heads to soundcheck and a meet-and-greet with fans before playing all concert long. In the morning, the band will hit the road again en route to shoot a video for its next single, “Save Me,” before playing a pair of Southern California shows over the weekend. It’s a packed schedule to be sure, but not necessarily too out of the ordinary for a prominent touring rock band.

Nearly a year after the release of her debut EP, Not Dead Yet, Ledger has settled into a rhythm of mixing in live shows and releasing new tracks. While she loves the opportunity to get songs to fans, she speaks excitedly about the prospects of accelerating the process.

“If it was up to me, I’d be releasing music every month,” Ledger says, eagerly. “I’ve been frustrated with how slow it’s gone, honestly.”

Along with touring relentlessly with Skillet in support of their latest release, Victorious, she plans to spend the rest of the year writing and recording, and is aiming for an early 2021 full-length debut. Ledger’s latest, “My Arms,” is a piano-driven rock ballad about having the power to overcome. Ledger says that while the EP was lyrically more of a victory march over the specter of fear and anxiety, “My Arms,” which she wrote two years ago, serves as the foundation of what drives her.

“‘My Arms’ is more like the invitation and the secret quiet place of how I’m able to do these things that are in front of me,” she says.“It’s very much the key to my life.”

The Coventry, England-born drummer didn’t grow up with rock star aspirations. A number of stars had to align for Ledger to even have the opportunity to audition for Skillet. It’s a chain of events that she chalks up to divine intervention. At 16, Ledger moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin to participate in a Christian discipleship program. Soon after, Ledger became friends with the sister of Skillet guitarist Korey Cooper.

As fate would have it, Skillet drummer Lori Peters was just leaving the band, and auditions were being held to find a replacement. Cooper’s sister, Rosie, urged Ledger to audition for the role. Ledger didn’t want to but tried out anyway. The night before the audition, she was too rattled to play in front of her friends, which made her doubt her abilities even more.

Ledger refocused with the help of some prayer, and at the try-out played better than ever before. Instead of celebrating, she became scared she wouldn’t be able to recreate the performance.

“‘I’m so nervous, and now I’ve misled them all!'” Ledger recalls thinking. “‘They’re all going to think I’m this amazing drummer, and I couldn’t even do this the night before.'”

She tried to sabotage her interview with Skillet and told frontman John Cooper that she stopped playing the drums and probably wouldn’t pick them up again. The band, in turn, didn’t make her audition a second time. Cooper offered her the job outright.

Ledger’s music is based in hard rock, bouncy pop and soft balladry. She writes where her inspiration takes her—with Korey Cooper guiding the way as her producer.

“She knows me, and she knows all my influences,” Ledger says. “I’m not really good at guitar lingo, so when I say I want a ‘Jimmy Eat World feel’ and try to sing it, she’s able to translate what I’m looking for even when I can’t put it into words.”

Her Skillet bandmates fully support her solo project, helping to develop it further.

On stage at Ace of Spades, Ledger is bundle of joyous energy, bouncing from side to side throughout her upbeat set. Flanked by a drummer and guitarist, Ledger brings infectious riffs with driving rhythms. The trio plays a set heavy on unreleased material, including “Goner,” “Cosmic” and the memorable “Rampage.” The vulnerability of playing live was one of the aspects that most surprised her about doing a solo project, she says.

“You feel way more exposed and just incredibly vulnerable,” she says. “It feels was less protected than being behind the drums at the back of the stage.”

One of the defining aspects of Skillet’s sound is the uplifting lyrical message that connects with fans and carries them through difficult times. One fan told her recently how her music helped her get through two bouts of cancer. Ledger is familiar with hearing these kinds of stories from Skillet fans, but it carries an even deeper significance when fans respond this way to her own lyrics.

“I can’t believe that God allows me to be a part of something that reaches so much further than I can understand,” Ledger says. “There’s just a whole new level of fulfillment when you realize something that you’ve been through, that you choose to be vulnerable about, helps someone get through their vulnerable moment—it almost makes you grateful that you’ve been through hardship. … It’s a beautiful thing. I just have to get over the fact that people know my business!”

Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.

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