By Joshua Maloni
The math is pretty simple.
When Kingdom Bound Ministries Executive Director Donna Russo said, “As I was preparing for the (Kingdom Bound) festival, I felt the Lord bring me to James 1:22, ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only,’ ” then she was probably expecting something along the lines of Matthew 22.
The Pharisees asked Jesus, “Which is the great commandment in the Law?” He replied, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.”
So, if 2+2 = 4 – if Jesus said to love people, and Russo sought to encourage folks to act on his words – then Kingdom Bound should’ve been a place of acceptance.
That’s exactly what this writer found when attending two of the festival’s four days this week.
Kingdom Bound was the epicenter of love, kindness, forgiveness and, yes, tolerance. It didn’t matter who showed up – what they wore, who they dated, mistakes they’d made – everyone was greeted warmly, and given encouragement to live their best life.
Seminars, speakers, concerts – even the arts and crafts areas – sought to lift up the tens of thousands who descended upon Six Flags Darien Lake.
Russo said, “There are many of us who attend the festival and receive, who need a gentle push to realize that God makes deposits in us calling us to invest back into our world and the people in it. It is that investment through serving others that changes lives.”
Among the highlights of the 33rd annual Kingdom Bound:
•The AMPED! Tent served as a place for middle-schoolers to kick-start their days with high-energy music, play games, compete for prizes and even learn a lesson or two.
•The Worship Tent was an area for more reflective music, plus speakers and teachings.
•Kingdom Bound @ the Gazebo Stage offered more contemporary and urban musical stylings.
•Darien Lake’s amphitheater boasted a “who’s who” of Christian musicians, including the return of Rebecca St. James; upstart acts The Young Escape and Ledger; “American Idol” alum Danny Gokey; for KING & COUNTRY, who just dropped a new track featuring Echosmith; and Skillet, a band that recently passed 2 billion Pandora streams.
Kingdom Bound Ministries Marketing and Communications Director Dave Bruno said, “Kingdom Bound 2019 was a fantastic festival that drew crowds in recent festival record numbers from 26 states and three Canadian provinces to Six Flags Darien Lake. From the music on three stages, to art classes, to speakers, to activities for the whole family and more, 2019 was a great success. We so appreciate all those who attended and look forward to what is to come at Kingdom Bound 2020.”
John Cooper of Skillet joins the set.
Jen Ledger will perform at Kingdom Bound. (Images courtesy of The Media Collective)
Preview by Joshua Maloni
Ostensibly, it seems odd the Christ-centered Kingdom Bound would book an artist whose home page shows her (yes, her) beating a Bill Goldberg-lookalike into submission inside a wrestling ring.
Fists to the face are not usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Jesus.
But think about it: If the video’s song is a metaphor for life, and the opponent is not a man, but, say, fear, or doubt, or disease, for that matter, then someone should be throwing hands, right?
The imagery is unexpected, to be sure, but it works – and it serves as a suitable metaphor for the singer who penned the words we hear as the pugilists square off.
Seemingly, no one would leave the comfy confines of the drum kit in one the world’s biggest bands to start a side project from scratch. Yet, that’s exactly what Jen Ledger did in 2018, as she took a break from Skillet to helm an eponymously named rock outfit.
Her explanation for going it alone is the same reason one is called to kick fear and its friends to the corner: God said so.
This emboldened spirit was no doubt the inspiration for “Not Dead Yet.” In fact, Ledger’s words seem like something Jesus might’ve said while preparing to bust out of Hell:
“Called to the ring/Taking me round by round/It hurts and it stings/Taking me down, down, down/You think that you caught me/I can hear you taunt me/Fractured and I'm falling down/My enemy is watching me bleed/But I'm not dead yet, so watch me burn/Go on trying, lying, you're so sure/I may be broken, but I'm not done/I'll go on fighting while there's breath in my lungs/'Cause I'm not dead yet.”
Such faith – let’s call it pluck – is exactly why Ledger will be front and center at Kingdom Bound next week.
Jen will take the Darien Lake amphitheater stage at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday for a set with LEDGER, and then return at 9:30 p.m. for a headlining performance with Skillet.
NFP recently caught up with the drummer and singer, who revealed more of what went into her debut EP. Ledger also shared her thoughts on working with John Cooper (lead vocals/bass), Korey Cooper (guitar/keys) and Seth Morrison (lead guitar) in Skillet, the Grammy-nominated rock band that recently cracked Pandora’s “Billionaires Club” with 2 billion video streams.
An edited Q&A follows.
Q: I'm curious, what got you into drumming?
Jen Ledger: It's kind of a funny story. Basically, I grew up the youngest of four. I have two older brothers that were twins. I just thought they were super cool, and I basically copied them at anything that they did. So, they played football, I played football; they did athletics, I did athletics. (Note: Jen is from England, so we’re talking soccer.)
They both learned the drums, and so shortly thereafter I was like, “I want to learn the drums, too!” It was very much like a young kid trying to get her older siblings to think that she was cool. And very much just copying them. It really took off, and now – I’m not going to lie – they think I'm pretty cool! It worked in the end. (Laughs)
Q: I was going to ask you if you got credit with the siblings. The siblings are impressed.
Jen Ledger: I finally made it!
They’re the best. They’re like the biggest supporters in the whole world. They’re so cool. Even though I wasn’t expecting this, either. It ended up something none of us could’ve imagined.
Q: It's funny that you mention that, because it’s a perfect segue into my next question. And so, when they announced you were going to have your self-titled EP come out last year, there was a quote from Pete Ganbarg of Atlantic Records. He said, "Her voice is so unique – and has become such an identifiable part of Skillet's sound – that we've waited for most of the past decade for the moment when she would finally be ready to release her own music.” Apparently, the label was expecting you to release your own music at some point. Was that something you always expected to do? And if it was, what made 2018 the right time for you to do it?
Jen Ledger: That is a great question. Truthfully, I heard rumors that the label had talked about doing a solo project with me when “Awake” came out. That’s super kind that Peter would say something like that on record. He is an incredible A&R guy – such a talented guy. Even hearing that, it's like kind of surreal to hear it. I'm like, “Oh my gosh, he said that – what!?!” It’s awesome.
Truthfully, I don't think I really realized that was in the works. But (2009’s Platinum-selling) “Awake” was such a surprising album for Skillet; and it did such incredible numbers; and people really resonated with the album. I think it was kind of like a question for people that maybe I didn't really even know about.
For me, I had just turned 18. Gotten into a rock band. I was in such a whirlwind season; I'd actually just become a believer like a year before I got into Skillet. For me, it was just like I was having such an exciting adventure with the Lord.
I actually wanted to be a hairdresser, that was my plan when I first initially came to America. I ended up auditioning for Skillet, and obviously, that just massively changed my path.
And so, the solo project didn't really start, in my own heart, stirring until about six years ago. I was traveling the world with Skillet, and we’re meeting all these people in different countries that don't even speak the same language as us. And (they’re) saying, “I was gonna kill myself, and then I heard your song and it stopped me; it saved my life,” or “God has touched me through your music, and now I have passion and now I have this hope.”
You just meet so many people, and you’re struck with the power of music – how it just doesn't have the same boundaries; it breaks all of those barriers, and God can use it massively. And so, I felt really stirred in my heart. I was meeting these girls that were learning to play the drums because of me, and they were changing their hair to copy me. And I just felt really moved and humbled on the inside that God would allow me to have such an influence on the younger generation. And I just thought, “Lord, how can I be even more valuable with the platform that you've given me, when I've got this small window of time where people care or think I'm cool? I know it won't last forever, but how can I use it to just bring more glory to your name?”
And I just felt challenged that writing songs on my own, from my own heart, would be a great way to kind of just be even clearer and more vocal about my faith.
And so, I reached out to John and Korey, and asked them if they’d train me in songwriting. And they really took me under their wings, especially Korey. We started writing together that first year.
And I think it just kind of took a long time to develop into what it was, you know? I was a brand-new writer going from song to song, like from hook to hook, to who knows what; I was just really learning as I went. And I feel like it just, in the last few years, really took its own identity. It took its own sound. And it was kind of really clear on what the LEDGER project should be at that point.
Through prayer and team decisions and talks, we kind of all decided that 2018 was the perfect time to launch an EP, see how the fans take it – make it clear I’m not leaving Skillet, but simply we’re just getting more music out.
And it was just a really exciting year, because not only did we release the LEDGER project, but we also had John Cooper release his own side project called Fight the Fury, which was a heavy-metal project. And we kind of felt like it was just the season to release more content, more avenues of music, to reach more people. We see it as just like a branching out of different streams to try and, basically, reach as many people for Christ is possible. So, it's pretty exciting now to see it all actually working together.
Q: You know that God is working through you. You know that you felt called to do this solo project. You also know you have a big and passionate fanbase, because of what you've done with Skillet. But obviously you're also human, right. I'm sure that there were probably some sleepless nights, some trepidation as to, “Will this work?” Or “How well will this work?” To have it come out and to chart so incredibly high, and be so successful (No. 2 on iTunes rock albums chart/No. 7 on iTunes albums) – what did you think about that?
Jen Ledger: It was, honestly, it was an intense season, because, for me, I actually found it really stretching stepping into the role of like a frontperson and as a singer. I still can get quite nervous performing on stage. And so, there were times when I definitely had sleepless nights, like, “What are you thinking, you idiot, you’re going to fail!” (Laughs) “Why would you want to do something that's so stretching?”
It was very much so a whirlwind and a rollercoaster of emotions, you know. … It was good, because I had to kind of fight for peace and keep seeking the Lord, like, “Is this you? If it's not you, please take it away. But I really feel this is you.” So, it was very much those steps of faith for me.
I don't feel like singing or writing – it’s not something I’ve been doing since I was 6 years old. A lot of people find it easy and natural. But I have seen God already change my life by saying yes to him with the drums. I also thought I’d never be a strong enough drum player to do something like this. He's just changed the path of my life so massively. I feel like, if he's leading me, I'm not gonna look to the left and the right, I'm not gonna worry about my strengths and weaknesses, I'm just gonna trust that he'll be with me, and whatever is is.
And so, when the EP came out, it was so surreal, because it was like six years in the making at that point; and it was six years of praying about it; six years of wondering if I'm crazy or just stupid to try. There were times when I just felt like, “This is never going to happen.” It was just a lot of up and downs, and then when it was finally out there, it was almost like a breather – like I could breathe again. “Lord, I feel like you've had this on my heart for so long, to finally have out there is incredibly special and surreal.”
I didn't really super pay attention to the charts and stuff, mainly because I was like, “My heart can’t handle all this tension!” (Laughs) I was like, “ All I can do is focus on him … and focus that I feel like I did my best and was faithful to what you put before me.”
It is really surreal, because sometimes I get to talk to radio guys and all these different people in interviews, and then they kind of tell me about the success of the EP. And I'm a little bit taken aback by it. I’m like, “Oh, it really did that?” (Laughs) It’s a wonderful thing, and I’m really excited to see what’s next for LEDGER. It is a great season.
Q: People in Western New York have seen Skillet perform. They've seen your videos now with LEDGER, and they've seen highlights of live shows with LEDGER. But for the people who are going to see LEDGER live for the first time this summer, tell me a little bit about the live show – what they can expect, and maybe some of the songs that they can look forward to.
Jen Ledger: The LEDGER show, as far as performance and energy, I really try to learn from Skillet – and John Cooper is the best in the business when it comes to frontmen.
I have learned the hard way, being the frontperson is not easy. It looks so easy when people are up there, because they make it look effortless. But I've learned that, if I'm uncomfortable and awkward, then the crowd is, too. (Laughs) I had a hard learning curve. And now I just spent the winter growing quickly. I could feel God helping me as I go. But what I’m learning is to have an amazing time – to just leave it all on the stage, as I do in Skillet.
I'm doing that with LEDGER, too, and I’ve got a great band. Full of energy. And it's exactly the same – we’re trying to follow in the footsteps of you gotta bring a great, high-energy live show. And so, LEDGER is definitely an apprentice of Skillet in those things.
But then, the other things I think you'll find from a LEDGER show is our songs are highly uplifting. It's a lot about overcoming battles, or, you know, feeling like you're just beat down at times; maybe feel like you're facing things that are too big or too scary for you to face alone. It’s a very empowering show of songs that, basically, remind us of who we are. The fact that he is with us, it means that we can be weak, we can be broken, because he is with us. And he is the one that makes us strong.
And so, I feel like my main goal with LEDGER is to really uplift and empower people to remind them that they’re not alone. And to remind them that, no matter what battle they’re facing, he is with them. And with him, you can face this, even if it feels too big for you.
Skillet. From left: Jen Ledger, John Cooper, Korey Cooper and Seth Morrison (Credit: Chrissy Nix)
Q: I have to say, 10 years ago, I never would have thought a Christian band would have 2 billion streams on Pandora or would have music debut with People magazine, of all places. When you look at the success Skillet has had, I mean, how do you wrap your brain around that?
Jen Ledger: Honestly, I just don't think you really can.
It's cool, because we, in Skillet, have actually been talking about that a lot recently.
I joined the band when they’d already been established for 10 years or so. Eight years. The band's been going for 21-22 years now. It's really just, honestly, crazy, because they've had so many people come against them throughout the years, whether it's “You shouldn't have girls in the band. You shouldn't let your fans know that you're married – they won’t like that. You should pretend that you're single. You could be the biggest band in the world if you just stopped talking about Jesus.” They’ve always had all these different conflicts. And then, from the Christian side, like, “Could you just not look the way you do? Could you not scream so loud, and then you could be bigger over here?”
It’s a really interesting story about Skillet. To look back on this 22-year career, and to have 2 billion streams on Pandora, and 12 million albums sold, it's just like, “What?!?” You know, it honestly doesn't make any sense, but it is just such an example of how we can rely on God. That when people say, “You can’t do this; it's gonna hurt your career,” you feel convicted and you feel like you're not meant to compromise – which the Coopers have done over and over and over again. They’re just not compromised when people have told them, “This could make you more famous.”
And I think it's honestly only the hand of God that could do something so miraculous – especially at a time where being Christian couldn't be less popular. It is just such an unusual political season and unusual time we’re living in, that God’s just seemed to do everything with Skillet. And I just believe that’s from stepping out in faith, and not compromising, and then letting him do the rest.
Both LEDGER and Skillet perform Wednesday, July 31, on Kingdom Bound’s main stage inside Six Flags Darien Lake. For more information, visit https://www.kingdombound.org/lineup.
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For more information, visit www.kingdombound.org.