It was the first big concert I ever attended. My friends and I craned our necks over the steep balcony at Minneapolis’s Northrop Auditorium as we sang along to Ingrid Michaelson and the songs from her 2015 “Lights Out” album. The concert felt like a turning point for my musical taste, but not because of the headliner’s catchy tunes and impeccably produced set. As much as I love Ingrid’s music, I might love her choice in openers even more. Her concert was the night I first heard Jukebox the Ghost.
Jukebox the Ghost is a trio composed of pianist and vocalist Ben Thornewill, guitarist and vocalist Tommy Siegel and drummer Jesse Kristin. They formed the band in 2006 while attending college in Washington, D.C. and have since released five studio albums and played nearly 1,000 shows.
The group’s music has been generally characterized as piano-rock or power pop. They are self-described “piano pop wizards,” but relegating Jukebox the Ghost to one genre doesn’t do justice to their breadth of style. Heavily influenced by Queen, the trio has recorded their fair share of pop-rock anthems, but they have also written stripped-down acoustic pieces and gospel-inspired songs.
One of the key aspects that sets Jukebox the Ghost apart from other pop-rock bands is the foundation of Thornewill’s classical piano talent. Thornewill took lessons in classical piano throughout his childhood and high school years, while also studying jazz and often experimenting with how to combine his classical training with his affinity for pop and rock music.
In Jukebox the Ghost’s music, the piano is never background noise, but front and center in nearly every song, often doubling on the melody and the bass line. Even in the band’s most experimental tunes or those utilizing heavy synth, the piano cuts through, grounding the piece.
When I first saw Jukebox the Ghost in concert on Ingrid Michaelson’s tour, they played songs from their 2014 self-titled album. It was a departure from their previous recordings as they experimented more with instrumentation — while each member of the trio had always played their signature instrument on previous albums, they relied less on formula for “Jukebox the Ghost” and instead tried new instrumental combinations that would provide the best fit for each song.
The album also marked their transition to a more pop sound, though the change was more of a result of their experimentation than an intentional stylistic choice. In an interview from 2014, Siegel remarked, “I can see someone hearing it and perceiving it as almost like it’s a sellout record, like ‘Jukebox trying to make it big,’ or something like that. But for us, it was this weird experience of taking all sorts of risks as a band that we had never taken before.”
The risks paid off, as tracks like “Girl” and “Hollywood,” both with catchy melodies and clever lyrics on disillusioned love, have claimed spots on the trio’s most popular songs list on Spotify.
“Off to the Races,” released in 2018, is Jukebox the Ghost’s most recent ambitious record. The 10 songs expand even more on the group’s instrumental and vocal capabilities, using more electronic production and thicker layers of vocal harmony between Thornewill and Siegel.
“Jumpstarted,” the album’s first tune, is the most complex, transitioning from one musical genre to the next. It features synth and guitar solos and over 170 vocal tracks, while still showcasing Thornewill’s classical piano chops.
In addition to the catchy melodies, the record’s main strength is its thematic resonance. “Boring” and “People Go Home” encompass the fear and disillusionment of early adulthood’s looming expectations, which contrasts with the innocent nostalgia of young love in “Diane” and “Fred Astaire.”
“Colorful” gives more hope, as it encourages authenticity, with Thornewill singing, “Hey, yeah we’re just getting started / Take your fears and let them go / For the lovers and the broken-hearted / Take a deep breath, make the world a little colorful.”
But “Time and I” arguably best encapsulates the universality of the album, with the theme of time and how we use it, creating the cohesive through-line that ties the whole record together.
Even with their increasing experimentation, Jukebox the Ghost continues to succeed by sticking to its roots. Despite the heavier production on their two most recent albums, the trio has also released more stripped-down versions for both. Thornewill recorded solo piano versions of each song on “Jukebox the Ghost,” which dispels any doubt of his serious skills on the keys, while the 2019 release of a deluxe version of “Off to the Races” includes acoustic versions of each song, as well as four new tunes.
These releases demonstrate that, despite their increasing electronic production, the band’s music is still undergirded by advanced instrumental talent.
Nowhere is the trio’s musical flair more apparent than on their tours. I have been to three Jukebox the Ghost concerts, and each one has delivered high energy, fantastic production and confident performance. The group also is admirably self-aware about their major influences and regularly pays homage to them during concerts, most notably on their HalloQueen tours.
For the past several years, the trio has gone on an October mini-tour in which they play each first set as themselves and the second as Queen, complete with costumes that would make Freddie Mercury proud. I have yet to attend one of these concerts, but if their recordings of Queen favorites, like “Don’t Stop Me Now,” are any indication, HalloQueen is not to be missed.
Despite Jukebox the Ghost’s critical acclaim and touring success, their fan base remains relatively small compared to the more well-known pop superstars played on the radio. However, the trio’s charm has cultivated a community of some of the most dedicated fans. Thornewill, Siegel and Kristin are down to earth, often coming out to talk to fans for impromptu, post-concert meet-and-greets.
As much as their deliberation and care is revealed in their carefully curated albums, the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Their concerts often include melodicas and crowd-surfing stuffed animals, and their merch is emblazoned with Siegel’s endearing illustrations, such as the ghost logo he sketched in the band’s first hours of existence, and the band’s self-deprecating alter ego “Juicebox the Toast.”
If you are already familiar with Jukebox the Ghost and can’t get enough, each of the band members has some solo projects as well. Thornewill recorded an album of classical piano improvisations in 2017 and has recently been releasing singles on Spotify that show off both his piano and vocal abilities. In addition to the illustrations he contributes to Jukebox the Ghost’s merch, Siegel frequently posts webcomics on his Instagram, and his first book of comics will be published later this year. Kristin has a solo project under the name Jesse Dylan and the Scaredy Cats and has recorded several EPs and singles and one album.
The group has also been recording acoustic social distancing versions of some of their most popular songs and has been posting them on their YouTube channel during quarantine. Kristin has even been using combinations of kitchen utensils and household items as a drum set. Also, they have been frequently live streaming performances on Facebook during the lockdown.
I encourage everyone to give them a listen. Even virtually, their performances still have the same genuine and uplifting energy that captured my attention five years ago.