The first thing that strikes you about Lisa Kelly is her eyes — sparkling and smiling and focused on every word in a conversation.
Then come the lighthearted laugh and delightful Irish accent that color her sentences. On some people, these melodic accessories might come off as affectations, but with Kelly, everything oozes authenticity.
For nearly a decade, Kelly supplied those attributes, as well as her angelic soprano voice, to Celtic Woman, the international Irish phenomenon that is a favorite of PBS watchers and fans of lilting Celtic folk-pop.
But when the group visits the Fox Theatre on Tuesday, Kelly won’t be with them. Instead, she’ll be teaching a class at the Lisa Kelly Voice Academy, her recently opened singing school in Peachtree City.
In January, Kelly officially departed Celtic Woman to concentrate on the academy — which she runs with her husband, former Riverdance star and Celtic Woman CEO Scott Porter — and raise their four children in the golf-cart-loving enclave about 40 minutes south of Atlanta.
It’s obvious to wonder how a Dublin-raised lass in a massively popular, relentlessly touring group with a penchant for lush vocal stylings wound up in Peachtree City. The answer is a bit less obvious.
“I Googled the best places to live in America and (Peachtree City) kept coming up. I honestly thought it was a joke. I sat Scott down one weekend and said, ‘You’ve got to go look.’ So he came down here and said, ‘You’re going to love this place.’ I decided I wanted to live here before I even came,” Kelly, 35, said.
The city, which the family moved to two years ago, also provided the suburban amenities that they couldn’t indulge in during a stint living in Manhattan — solid public schools, neighborhoods where the kids could play in the streets and a sense of community.
Being in proximity to Atlanta — Kelly is a fan of Buckhead and Fogo de Chao restaurant — and within reasonable flying time to her homeland also factored into the decision.
“It’s nice to see people leave work at 5 o’clock,” Kelly said of her living environs. “Family is completely prioritized.”
While she initially continued her Celtic Woman life after moving to Peachtree City and kept pace on the road with her children Cian, 10, Jack, 8, and Ellie, 5, the arrival of Harry, now almost 11 months old, prompted Kelly to consider hanging up the glittery gowns and pursue a lifelong dream.
“I’ve always wanted to do this,” she said of the voice academy, a cavernous space housed in a former Kroger and tucked away in Peachtree Crossing Shopping Center next to a Fresh Market.
Both she and Porter, who left Celtic Woman this year as well, have taught before. But the impetus to finally open the school came when Kelly heard of a friend’s daughter who couldn’t get into the church choir.
“That just didn’t make any sense to me,” she said, eyes widening. “I wanted to open something noncompetitive. Even if they aren’t the greatest singers in the world, they can come in and they’re not judged and nobody is laughing at them. It’s not in my nature to lead someone up the garden path. I can be brutally honest. But I don’t think it’s fair to turn around and tell someone, ‘You can’t sing.’”
In addition to vocal technique, Kelly educates her students — currently more than 100, ranging from tots to seniors — about other performance values, such as having respect for everyone on stage, learning how to tell a story with a song and projecting confidence …but not overconfidence.
“With us (in Celtic Woman), there was never a pecking order. We have all worked from the time we were 3 and done stage management and made our costumes at some point. We went from being in the chorus to working our way up, every single one of us on that stage,” she said.
Kelly’s nurturing-yet-tough approach is seemingly appreciated by her fledgling charges; a wall running alongside the black upright piano in the center of the classroom bears the signatures of her students, many adorned with hearts and smiley faces.
The unassuming Kelly acknowledges that some students have sought out her singing services because of her connection to Celtic Woman, even coming from Savannah and Jacksonville. Others, though, are oblivious to her famous prior life. And some young men show up, she said with a self-deprecating laugh, “Thinking Chloë (Agnew, the comely blonde in Celtic Woman) is going to be here.”
Speaking of her former group mates, Kelly is unabashed in expressing how much she misses her longtime girlfriends.
“There’s a huge hole in my heart because they’re such a huge part of my life, as I know my kids and I are huge parts of their lives,” she said. “We were like sisters. We never had a cross word between us.”
Though Kelly can’t attend Celtic Woman’s Fox show, she anticipates visits from the girls since they have days off bookending their Atlanta date.
And there might even be a golf cart ride involved.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
For more music news, interviews and concert reviews, visit The Music Scene blog at www.accessatlanta.com.