The world’s largest and most heralded Christian music tour — Winter Jam — is off and running once again, this time on a 3-month, 44-city tour that began Jan. 11 in Jacksonville, Florida, and will include a pair of stops in Iowa, the first on Jan. 24 in Council Bluffs, followed by a return visit to Des Moines at Wells Fargo Arena on Jan. 25.
Winter Jam has been wildly popular since its inception in 1995 with its quick hitting, short-set format. The 2019 version stays the course but will also feature new, in-the-round staging, allowing the audience to see the acts in an even more up-close-and-personal way from the center of the auditorium. The lineup is a veritable “Who’s Who in Christian Music” once again and includes the platinum-selling Newsboys United, Grammy Award winner Mandisa, 2016 Dove Award winner Danny Gokey, Newsong, Rend Collective, Hollyn, Dan Bremnes, Manic Drive, Ty Brasel, and Winter Jam veteran Jen Ledger, who will step out from behind her drum kit with Skillet to front her own band, Ledger.
The spunky 29-year-old Ledger, who has entertained audiences for more than a decade with her hair-whipping brand of drumming raucousness for Skillet, won’t be seated behind her kit this time, though. Ledger stepped out on her own this this year, releasing an EP simply titled “Ledger” on Atlantic Records last spring, featuring the ballad “Ruins,” a song Ledger penned with Skillet band mate Korey Cooper; “Warrior,” featuring Skillet front man John Cooper; “I’m Not Dead Yet,” the album’s first video; as well as “Bold” and “Foreigner.”
Soon after the release, Ledger pulled double-duty by taking her band on the road as the opening act on the Skillet and for King And Country tour, giving the diminutive Ledger an entirely new perspective of performing from beyond the usual comfort zone of her drum throne.
“It was quite challenging in ways I didn’t expect,” she admitted in a phone interview. “I’ve been singing with Skillet and have stepped out front before, but actually leading a show, and not having John (Cooper) in front of me …. he’s just an incredible front man. He gets the crowd laughing, and is completely comfortable. Not many people can do it. Now I’m in charge of making banter between songs and making those transitions, which is more daunting than what I thought it would be, to be honest.”
ListenIowa caught up with Ledger just prior to the start of the tour where she spoke of the challenges of playing in the round, her love of Winter Jam, and her busy year ahead.
You’ve been involved with Winter Jam for a number of years now, but this time you’re on your own.
Yeah, I’ve been touring Winter Jam with Skillet for several years now, and actually my first tour, I’d just turned 18 and had just gotten into Skillet, and we played Winter Jam 2008. I went from having only played in a church and being nervous for 200 people, to playing for 16,000 people with pyro and fire. (laughs) Winter Jam has a super soft spot in my heart. It’s a massive part of my journey. Now, I’m back here, on my own, 11 years later, with music from my own heart. It’s incredibly surreal. I just hope that people love it.
What was it like for you as a teenager to be thrust into the huge spotlight of playing for thousands of people every night?
Tremendously nerve-wracking. I was just so sure I was going to be a hairdresser that I just thought I couldn’t do the “rock star” thing. When you play at church and your knees knock, you tend to think, “Well, this is just not for me.” I had just come to America and had just gotten really serious about my faith when I was 16. I got radically born again, and then 13 months later, I was in a massive, touring rock band. The Coopers had taken a massive chance in choosing me with my zero experience. I felt incredibly humbled. It was a big shift and a massive whirlwind — massive, but beautiful. I can’t take any credit for it; it was Him.
This year’s Winter Jam will be a little different, with the show being held in the round as far as staging. That’s not a big deal when you’re the drummer, but when you’re the front person….
(laughs) I’ve played in the round a bunch of times, but I’ve always been sitting, so I’ve never had to worry about it. When there are no other options, there’s a lot less to worry about. But this time around will be the first time I’ve ever fronted. It’s a really interestingly-shaped stage, with a bunch of catwalks coming off of it, so I’m probably going to spend most of the set out of breath. I’d better get my cardio in before I get there so I’m not the old, fat, sweaty girl on the stage. (laughs)
Not to mention that people will be looking at you from all angles at all times.
Yeah, you’re always only performing for half the crowd at once. It’s challenging in that sense. It’s a bit awkward, because a ton of people will be looking at my back. (laughs) I make sure my hair is done in the back. Normally I don’t really care. (laughs)
A layer of protection is now gone.
Yeah, and the songs are so personal to me, and from the depths of my heart, that it adds another dimension to things, too. If the audience doesn’t like the songs, then it becomes more personal, and it feels like they don’t like me. This is a new level of vulnerability that I wasn’t expecting.
Did you seek out John or Korey for any tips on being out front during a show?
My problem is that I probably seek their input too much. (laughs) I respect them so much. They are complete geniuses. They can both produce, they can both write, they can both play a million instruments. They’re just on another level. It’s crazy. John is one of the best motivators in the world. I’m just so impressed with him. So basically when anything happens, I’m like, “Hey, is this better? Or is this better? What do you think?” (laughs) Any input they want to give me, hey, I couldn’t be learning from better people. When you’ve been doing it that long and you’re that good at it, I’m not going to turn down any input from them.
You’ve got a great gig with Skillet, so how did you get to this place where you decided to put out your own solo album, and, although you’re still in Skillet, you’re branching out a bit on your own?
I felt a stirring in my heart about six years ago and wanted to start writing my own music. I’ve been touring with Skillet all over the world, and I’ve seen how music can break barriers. We’ve toured with some of the heaviest and biggest rock bands in the world, and I’m struck by how God can reach people, even in their darkest places. Whenever I’m playing those shows, I can’t help but be in awe of how God would let us go to these places and shine His light; it’s very special. On top of that, we’re travelling all over the world and speaking to Russian fans, or Japanese fans, and they’re telling us that maybe they wanted to end their lives but hearing one of our songs saved them from doing that and gave them hope. It’s amazing how God can reach people through music. I just felt really struck with the platform of music. I’ve met so many girls who are telling me they started playing drums because of me, or they were changing their hair because of me. (laughs) It really humbles me. I can’t believe that God would put me in a position like this where people would be looking at me and copying what I do. So I thought, “Well, why not write my own music?” I want to use this platform in every way possible to show what my life is about — Him. We live in a world that’s kind of media crazy. People are telling our younger generation that it’s only about being famous, being wealthy, being beautiful, having a bunch of followers. I want to be an example of something else.
The Coopers were both involved in the process of helping you with your solo album in some form or fashion. Did you run into any times during the writing and/or recording of the album that your songs were maybe sounding too much like Skillet, and then had to change things up?
Sometimes there were those times, yes. Skillet is such a massive influence. I’ve been in the band 11 years, and it’s my biggest shaping of who I am as a musician, so you’re going to hear some of that in the songs whether you want to or not. But at the same time, I have different sides of me that aren’t reflected in Skillet at all. Dad had me growing up on Alanis Morrissette, Queen and the Beatles. I love pop music. It (the solo album) has touches of that, and Skillet, too, because, well, I am in Skillet! (laughs) I’ve learned how to write from Skillet as well. I do lean to the softer, poppier side, though. If we were all in the room, I found it fascinating to see the melodies that I would lean toward compared to what they would lean toward. You could really see the differences there. If we were writing a Skillet song, I’d usually lean to what their group said, whereas with Ledger, they’ll all just do whatever I’m leaning toward. You get freedom depending on whose project it is. You just get in line and try and support them. It’s so cool to see how things end up. I think it’s so much better when you collaborate like that. It can lead you to places you didn’t think you can go.
And that probably applies with the vocals, too. On your album, you sing with a very different style than what you do with Skillet. Based on that, would you say that the softer, pop-oriented songs and vocal deliveries are your true preference?
I don’t know, really. I feel like I’m still learning my voice. I’m not a trained singer, and kind of got thrown into doing “Hero” and “Awake and Alive,” with Skillet. I’ve only really sung one way — the shout singing — so I feel like I’m discovering new things now. There’s a song called “Ruins” that I wrote on the album. Most people haven’t ever heard me sing like that before, and there’s a funny story behind it. We were on tour in Europe with Nickelback, and European bus drivers sleep on the bus during the day. Korey and I had finished the demo, but I had to sing the chorus. I meant to do it the normal way — the Skillet way, full and loud — but because the bus driver was sleeping, I did it in a “whispery” way. It turned out to be a happy accident. We recorded it so we could remember it, and later I was like, “Um, I kind of love this.” (laughs) And Kory did, too. So I started using that part of my voice that I never had before, and now it’s like I have two voices — one really loud and shout-y, and one that’s gentle and whispery.
Your style of playing drums is very physical. More than a decade into it now, have you found yourself any worse for the wear as time goes on, or is it the same?
I feel like in some ways it’s the same. You have to take care of yourself, but I’m never going to give up chocolate. (laughs) It just makes my life better. Giving up chocolate on the road is a bad thing for everyone, so it’s for the sake of everyone else. (laughs) Ten years ago, I didn’t even know what sound check was, but now I feel like I’ve had all the mistakes happen, I’ve given myself black eyes on stage in front of everyone, and they turned out not to be as bad as I thought they’d be. That experience has helped me relax so I can keep going.
So what can we expect from you moving forward as a solo artist and also as a member of Skillet? You’ve got a full plate, to say the least.
Yeah, there’s a lot of exciting stuff. Skillet will have a new album out in 2019, and I’ve got to say, it’s the best music I’ve ever heard from Skillet. I’m so pumped about what we’ve got in our pocket. I wish we could release it right now. We’ve got a new single to release with Ledger, then the Skillet release, and then we’re hoping to be working on a Ledger release shortly after that. It’s a whirlwind, and we’re pumped to get it out there.
Winter Jam 2019*
1/13/19 Mobile, AL Mitchell Center
1/17/19 Evansville, IN The Ford Center
1/18/19 Grand Rapids, MI Van Andel Arena
1/19/19 Columbus, OH Schottenstein Center
1/20/19 Charlotte, NC Spectrum Center
1/24/19 Council Bluffs, IA Mid-America Center
1/25/19 Des Moines, IA Wells Fargo Arena
1/26/19 Kansas City, MO Sprint Center
1/27/19 St. Louis, MO Enterprise Center
1/31/19 New Orleans, LA Lakefront Arena
2/1/19 Birmingham, AL Legacy Arena at BJCC
2/2/19 Lexington, KY Rupp Arena
2/7/19 Peoria, IL Peoria Civic Center
2/8/19 Wichita, KS INTRUST Bank Arena
2/9/19 N. Little Rock, AR Verizon Arena
2/10/19 Tulsa, OK BOK Center
2/14/19 Reading, PA Santander Arena
2/15/19 Pittsburgh, PA PPG Paints Arena
2/16/19 Cincinnati, OH U.S. Bank Arena
2/17/19 Ypsilanti, MI EMU Convocation Center
2/21/19 Tupelo, MS BancorpSouth Arena
2/22/19 Knoxville, TN Thompson-Boling Arena
2/23/19 Greensboro, NC Greensboro Coliseum
2/24/19 Norfolk, VA Scope Arena
2/28/19 Springfield, MO JQH Arena
3/1/19 Bossier City, LA CenturyLink Center
3/2/19 Oklahoma City, OK Chesapeake Energy Arena
3/3/19 Austin, TX H-E-B Center at Cedar Park
3/8/19 Nashville, TN Bridgestone Arena
3/9/19 Louisville, KY Freedom Hall
3/10/19 Chattanooga, TN McKenzie Arena
3/15/19 Columbia, SC Colonial Life Arena
3/16/19 Atlanta, GA State Farm Arena f. Philips Arena
3/17/19 Southaven, MS Landers Center
3/21/19 Augusta, GA James Brown Arena
3/22/19 Raleigh, NC PNC Arena
3/23/19 Charleston, WV Charleston Civic Center
3/24/19 Greenville, SC Bon Secours Wellness Arena
3/28/19 Ft. Wayne, IN Allen County War Memorial Coliseum
3/29/19 Indianapolis, IN Bankers Life Fieldhouse
3/30/19 State College, PA Bryce Jordan Center
3/31/19 Cleveland, OH Wolstein Center
*artists and speakers may vary in some markets
For more information on Winter Jam 2019, visit http://2019.jamtour.com.