How Theo Bleckmann Channels Joni Mitchell in “Songs of Freedom”

It’s been 50 years since three ambitious female songwriters and vocalists each individually reshaped the face of popular music, infusing their songs with highly personal takes on race, love, and the politics of the era. To pay homage to the legacy of Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Abby Lincoln, Da Camera presents “Songs of Freedom” on Dec. 1 at the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall.

This performance, which originated as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series, brings together three of today’s most compelling jazz vocalists—René Marie, Theo Bleckmann and Alicia Olatuja—to present a musical tribute to these revolutionary women and their work.

We spoke with German-born Bleckmann on what it feels like to step into the legendary shoes of Joni Mitchell and share the stage with two other powerhouse performers.

In the program “Songs of Freedom,” you represent the iconic Joni Mitchell, whom Rolling Stone called “one of the greatest songwriters ever.” Have you met her or seen her in concert?
Unfortunately, I have not met her or seen her in concert. Joni, if you read this: call me.

What’s the first Joni Mitchell song you fell in love with and why?

A Case of You” completely blows my mind. The lyrics, the melody, the harmony…it put me right there and still, there’s so much to discover. I don’t think I’ll ever be done with it.

 What do you find intriguing about her life and music?

Joni Mitchell has always called her own shots. She is and always was in charge of her output and did not get sidetracked by success, popularity and stardom. The quality of her work has only become deeper because of it. I love how outspoken and unedited she is today.

 What’s so satisfying about the song list chosen for this concert? What have you learned from performing this repertoire?

There is such a strong coherence in the song choices. There is no better time than this political climate we’re in right now to shed light on three strong female artists who were not swayed or kept down by men. These women spoke out loud and with such poetry; they put their foot down as artists and paid the price for it, too. Whom we hold up and whom we push to the margins says a lot about us as a society.

What is it like to share the stage with René Marie and Alicia Olatuja?

I am a big fan of both of these wonderful artists. Alicia is a brilliant singer and one of the funniest people I know, which is yet another way to be strong in this world. I haven’t yet performed with René Marie but I am really looking forward to that.

 How do you take care of your voice? What’s your routine like before a concert?

The voice is like a violin—best when used frequently and with vigor and care. Of course I warm up before a concert, but I try not to get too paranoid about certain routines I absolutely must do, with the exception of eating pineapple.

Who gave you your start in music? Who inspires you?

One of the most important people early on in my singing career was Sheila Jordan, whom I met when I was just starting out and who encouraged me to come to New York. She was the person who showed me the way and said “Yes, you do have something to say,” when I didn’t believe in myself and didn’t even know who I was. I love that woman.

Da Camera presents “Songs of Freedom,” featuring vocalists René Marie, Theo Bleckmann and Alicia Olatuja, on Dec. 1 at the University of Houston’s Cullen Performance Hall.