Jill Gontkovic fondly recalls singing karaoke with her sister, Leah Freidhoff, in their parents’ basement. The scene is an easy one to picture: two teenagers holding microphones, giggling a little as lines of lyrics slide up and onto their television screen.
Guy and Eileen Gontkovic purchased the karaoke machine for their four children – Leah, Jill, Chad and Seth – so they could all have a little fun together, especially when they had friends over.
When friends did come over, and when Jill and Leah sang together, it became obvious to everyone in the room that these sisters weren’t only good at tennis and basketball. These sisters ... well, these sisters could s-i-n-g!
Leah took the first steps toward becoming a professional musician; she took voice lessons in high school and participated in chorus and school musicals. She taught herself to play guitar. Jill, on the other hand, initially preferred to be in front of the stage rather than on it.
Soon, however, Leah began trying to convince Jill to join her onstage ... and not just for a song or two.
Was Jill in?
She sure was; Jill says she simply couldn’t deny how much she loved singing, especially with her little sister.
That was about 11 years ago. Looking back, Jill says that the Johnstown community has been supportive of the Gontkovic sisters from the beginning.
“Places like The Crow’s Nest (in Tire Hill), Johnstown Inn (on Frankstown Road) and Jake’s Pub and Grill (in the Galleria Mall) were willing to set up regular gigs for us,” she says.
Jill and Leah play covers by rock bands such as Kings of Leon, The Cranberries and Vance Joy. Their formula is simple: play acoustic versions of a variety of pop, indie, ‘90s hits, country and folk songs, and add harmonies whenever and wherever they can. It’s a formula that has certainly been well-received by audiences in and around Johnstown.
Jill and Leah perform under the name Jill and Leah Acoustic. (Jill jokes that it “took them forever” to come up with their stage name. “Super original, right?”)
On occasion, they are accompanied by their cousin, Greg Kehl, who adds percussion with the Djembe drum. And sometimes, their brothers join in on the fun; Chad and Seth Gontkovic both sing and play guitar.
“Our family likes to play together whenever we can,” Jill says, and she also mentions that Guy and Eileen Gontkovic rarely miss a show.
“Leah’s husband, Nick, is also extremely supportive,” she says. “He and our dad are the best two roadies you’d ever meet. We are eternally indebted to them for the countless times they have bailed us out when we forgot a piece of equipment.”
Jill and Leah Acoustic have played at many private events, including wedding ceremonies, cocktail hours and light receptions. They’ve also shared their talents at summer festivals, in restaurants, at picnics, at graduation parties and at community fundraisers.
“Our favorite songs to play are the ones that get the crowd involved,” Jill says. “Some of my favorite moments playing music are when I see someone singing along.”
Jill and Leah are currently writing some original music. One goal they have in the new year is to record some of those songs and post them online (for all the latest news and updates, follow Jill and Leah on Facebook and/or Instagram). Their “dream gig” is to play their original songs at an AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival sometime in this new decade.
In addition to their act, Leah plays guitar and sings in the worship band at Liberty Grace Brethren Church. Jill sings at Harrigan’s Café and Wine Deck with Luis Gonzalez III and Joe Tirpak. She and fellow Johnstown native Ryan Krinjeck both sing lead vocals in the rock band Shades of June.
“Whenever you come out to listen to music, I like to say that you’re voting for live music just by showing up,” Jill says. “There wouldn’t be a scene if it wasn’t for the people. I think Johnstown is exceptionally supportive of live bands. Not every city is like that. We are most grateful to folks in town who come out to support live music and to the venues who provide the entertainment.”
Though music is a huge part of their lives, Jill and Leah are devoted mothers; Jill’s twins, Norah and Owen, are 7, and her oldest child, Van, is 12. Leah’s daughter, Winnie, is 2, Leah and Nick are preparing to welcome the newest addition to their family early next month.
“Both of us have played gigs very pregnant,” Jill says with a laugh. “Our parenting responsibilities dictate when we can play, but we strive to set a good example for our kids. We want to show them that you can be a parent and still be an artist. Whenever my children can attend a show, I try to get them involved. Sometimes Norah will come onstage and play the tambourine, and she actually keeps the rhythm better than I do.”
Get ready for more adorableness: Jill once overheard one of her children say, “When I grow up, I want to be a veterinarian and a singer.”
When Jill teaches voice lessons to young singers in the area, she encourages them to do what she and Leah have done: Pursue your passions.
“If there’s something you love to do,” Jill says, “you can always figure out a way to make it possible and to share it with others.”
Even though their teenage years are behind them, and that old karaoke machine is tucked carefully away, Jill and Leah are still having as much fun on the stage as they used to have in front of their parents’ television screen.
“Leah and I were always just happy to get to sing for anyone who would listen,” Jill says.