Her drumming journey has taken her from Coventry, England, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, to touring the world with Christian-rock group Skillet. That wasn’t exactly her life plan, though.

Jen Ledger’s original plan was to be a hairdresser, and today she admits that, at various points in her life, she wasn’t even that committed to the drums. Nonetheless, she entered a U.K. contest for young drummers—and was surprised when she placed high as a finalist. “It was a little bit of a shock to me,” said Ledger, “because I didn’t understand what I was capable of.”

Such humility is a prime personality trait for Ledger, whose talent behind a kit is matched by her equally impressive singing voice. With Skillet she handles double duty: rocking out hard on the drums over anthemic, arena-chorus Christian-heavy-metal fare, and then confidently stepping down from the riser to sing lead at the front of the stage.

Along with husband-and-wife team John (vocals, bass) and Korey (keys, guitar, vocals) Cooper and guitarist Seth Morrison, Ledger travels the world and brings an empowering message to fans searching for meaning and a guiding light. The drummer’s Christian faith has even helped her overcome recent episodes of anxiety.

But you wouldn’t have any clue about those struggles while watching Ledger pummel a kit, sing backing vocals, and then come out into the spotlight in full rock-star mode. She’s such a magnetic presence, in fact, that she’s indulged her creative juices and formed her own group, Ledger, with whom she sings and writes the music, with a little help from her Skillet friends on the production end.

Jen Ledger’s tale is all about believing in yourself and proving the naysayers wrong. It also doesn’t hurt to be able to play a perfect rendition of “Tom Sawyer.” But before we get to that, let’s find out how the drummer’s journey began.

MD: What brought you to the States?

Jen: I thought my two older brothers, Martin and David, were super cool, and I copied anything they did. And they both played drums. There was a Young Drummer of the Year competition in the U.K., for sixteen-year-olds and under, and before that I hadn’t taken drums that seriously. I spent a year and a half really digging in and made it into the top twelve in the country for that competition.

I was as surprised as anyone else. But a few months later I was offered a scholarship to the Living Light School of Worship in Kenosha, Wisconsin, which is a Bible study discipleship worship course. It teaches you Bible stuff but also music theory and ear training, and it gives you experience playing with other musicians. I didn’t love the idea of moving to the States; it seemed a bit daunting at sixteen years old. But I prayed about it and came to Kenosha, which is in the middle of nowhere. The course only had about eighteen or twenty students.

MD: Before that, were you able to listen to all kinds of music, or did it have to be faith-based?

Jen: Honestly, we didn’t grow up Christian. In America you have the Bible Belt, and a lot of people raised in church, but England is a different culture. But some of my best memories were singing Beatles songs in the car with my dad. And I was raised on a lot of Queen. I actually didn’t know any Christian music, which is funny because it ended up being my entire career.

MD: What was your audition for Skillet like?

Jen: I’ve never been the flashiest of drummers, and it wasn’t about how many notes I could fi t in every measure. And at seventeen years old, I was just too young to know that we could all approach the instrument in different ways. Everyone around me was inspired by Travis Barker. It kind of shot my confidence down. So at that point I was actually playing bass in a worship band. When Skillet approached me to audition, I was so insecure, and I originally thought, no way. But then I thought I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t go and try out.

They had me prepare a solo, so I was working on that, and they asked me to learn double kick, which I’d never really played before. I worked out of Stick Control and just did that with my feet instead of hands, trying to get my left foot working. Then I’d put a click on and do those exercises under a groove. And I’d switch stuff in my mind. If a rudiment was RLRR, the R would be a RL with my hands and then the L would be a RL with my feet. That would make for hand/foot [combinations] that would sound like really cool fills. So I was trying to incorporate double kick, which I’d only been learning for a few weeks, into a solo. I really enjoyed learning the double bass stuff . It was challenging and new.

MD: Besides the solo, you had to play Skillet music, naturally.

Jen: They had me learn some songs—P.O.D.’s “Alive,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Skillet’s “Better Than Drugs,” and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” And later I found out that John asked nobody else to do “Tom Sawyer,” just me. [laughs] And he had no idea I was seventeen at the time. Korey loved the idea of having a female drummer, by the way. But John wanted to prove a point that they needed a professional and not just some local from church who doesn’t know what she’s doing. So “Tom Sawyer” would show where we were at, but instead I ended up kind of nailing it. [laughs] But I had a good five weeks before the audition.

Ledger’s Setup

Drums: Pearl Reference Pure in Custom Sparkle Fade lacquer with black hardware
6.5×14 Reference brass snare
9×12 tom
14×14 floor tom
16×16 floor tom
18×22 bass drum

Cymbals: Sabian
14″ AAX X-Celerator hi-hat
18″ AAX X-Plosion crash
19″ AAX X-Plosion crash
21″ AAX Medium ride BR
20″ AAX Chinese

Hardware: Pearl, including P3002C Demon chain-drive double bass drum pedal, 2050 hi-hat stand, and B1030 boom cymbal stands

Sticks: Vic Firth Jen Ledger signature model

Heads: Evans, including ST snare batter and Hazy 300 snare side, EC2S Clear tom batters and EC resonants, EMAD 2 bass drum batter and EQ3 front

Mics: Shure

MD: What was the process of recording Skillet’s latest album, Victorious? Were you free to come up with your parts?

Jen: The nice thing is John and Korey are writers, but they’re also producers, so that made this experience one of the best for me. On previous albums, we’d fly into L.A., work with the big-dog producer, I’d have to know all twelve songs, do them all in two takes, and then be out. It left zero room for experimentation, and it was just high pressure. You’re paying by the thousands per hour in some studio in Hollywood, and there’s no room for error.

The beautiful thing about Skillet producing their own album this time around is it’s taken all that pressure off. From the demos, it’s pretty clear what John and Korey want from the drums, but they give me room to put my own flair in it. And depending on who is producing the song more, I’ll see influences. Like John’s would be Tommy Lee and Lars Ulrich for his songs. For Korey’s songs, she leans alternative, so it’ll be more Stewart Copeland or Larry Mullen Jr. And that’s exciting as a drummer, because it pulls you out of your go-to fills or feels. It pulls me into new avenues of drumming and keeps me out of my comfort zone.

But Skillet isn’t afraid to embrace technology or the “new,” so you’ll hear some live drums but also programmed and electronic drums. We want to make the song a powerhouse. This is what you sing in a stadium, or what will make you run the extra mile when you’re too tired.

MD: What about your own band?

Jen: The EP came out last year. It’s surreal and super exciting. I never believed I’d have the privilege and honor of playing in a group like Skillet. I’m incredibly grateful. Touring the world with them has opened my eyes to how powerful music is. It’s a way to influence people for good or for bad. And I’ve met so many girls that were learning to play drums because of me and changing their hair to copy me. I felt really humbled with the platform that I’d been given, to reach young people and shine a light.

We’re living in a social-media and reality- TV culture, and it makes people feel like their lives aren’t perfect but everyone else’s are. I wanted to be a voice for something else. You don’t have to be perfect and look like the Instagram models. Music is the best tool for that. So I started writing my own music and told John and Korey all the things in my heart, that I’m blessed to be in this band but that I could be more vocal and more of an influence for these young people. The Coopers trained me and took me under their wing and made room for this. And for some of our shows, I’m opening up with Ledger, where I sing, and closing out drumming and singing with Skillet. So it’s a bit of a whirlwind. It takes its toll on you. At the end of the night I’m wrecked.

MD: You’re hitting pretty hard live. What’s your warm-up like? And how do you prepare for that kind of live assault?

Jen: If I go up there cold, I might not be able to move my head the next day. [laughs] I’ve made those mistakes before. [Backstage] I have an electronic drum pad set up. And thirty minutes before the stage, I’ll warm up and get loose going through the parts. And I need to stretch out my neck and shoulders. For the performance, I’m all about connecting with the audience. I’m all about the passion and my heart shining through in my playing, more than the finesse at that point. So yes, I’m completely going mental up there.

MD: There have been many drummers who sing while they play, but what’s the key to singing while you’re really smacking the kit?

Jen: What’s hard with vocals is they’re so unforgiving. If you’re nervous or your adrenaline is pumping too fast, you’ll lose your breath. When I’m drumming, you won’t notice if I’m nervous, but when I’m singing I can’t hide it. If I’m hitting way too hard or playing fills when I’m singing, you’ll hear my voice shake. So I have to learn as I go, and each song is different. But at the end of the day I’m playing the drums so freaking hard and singing at the same time. People are excited by the experience and the energy, and the fans connect with me giving my all. It’s a rock ’n’ roll show.

MD: There are more and more female drummers in all kinds of bands. What advice would you give hungry female drummers trying to break through the boys’ club wall?

Jen: To all female drummers, I say, yeah, maybe you can still feel it a little. There are going to be those extra eyes on you when you walk up onstage. I’ve walked onstage and felt disappointment from a crowd when they see a girl on the drums. I’ve been there. But there’s nothing more rewarding than showing them up and winning them over within a couple of songs. You can feel the crowd turn.

But it’s changing. I’m playing with so many female drummers now that are on fi re, and they hold their own. My advice is, don’t just be good for a girl. Don’t settle for that. Just be good. Work hard and do it your way. Don’t stress if you play differently. Come at the drums in a way that you enjoy playing them. The more you play with passion and heart, the more you’ll connect with an audience. And passion and emotion and performance seem to go a lot further with a crowd than being so stressed that it’s all perfect.