Joseph Williams: From Toto to Tenant A New Solo Album Finds Him Mining His Muse

Joseph Williams/Denizen Tenant
Four Out of Five Stars

Videos by American Songwriter

Joseph Williams has always been well represented, not only as the second generation singer for Toto, but also as an Emmy nominated television composer, a film composer in the hallowed tradition of his famous father, the legendary John Williams, a voice-over actor (a talent gleaned from his mother, actress Barabra Ruick), a session singer and the mastermind behind a string of solo albums dating back nearly 40 years. Not one to rest on his laurels—or get sidelined by the pandemic—he’s currently touting an adventurous new album, Denizen Tenant, and looking ahead to a future tour with Dogz of Oz, a new incarnation of Toto that’s named for its original namesake and planned with his pal and sole remaining Toto bandmate Steve Lukather. Indeed, William and Lukather remain the last two musicians carrying the Toto banner forward.

“I’ve been keeping myself as busy as I possibly can,” Williams remarks when asked about his spate of activity. “That’s what keeps me from getting depressed or too busy thinking about how bad things have been for so long.”

Aside from a number of original compositions written by Williams himself—the brightly upbeat “Liberty Man,” the serendipitous “Black Dahlia,” an adventurous Yes-like tune titled “Remember Her,” and the rousing and robust sweep of “The Dream” and “World Broken” chief among them—the album also boasts a pair of unexpected covers in the form of Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” (featuring duet vocals from special guest Hannah Buck) and a faithful take on the classic Beatles ballad “If I Fell.” Given that tapping into a standard can be a somewhat precipitous proportion—it either comes across as an attempt to ape the original or simply sounds like a pale imitation—Williams insists that he wasn’t out to create any comparisons.

“It wasn’t like I decided I was going to do the most incredible cover I could,” Williams explains. “I was taking a break from working on another song, and like I often do, I went from this monitor to another monitor over here and watched some YouTube just to entertain myself for a second.  And all a sudden, a bunch of things that I was interested in came across. So, I happened to be watching clips of those two songs and got inspired to do them myself.” 

Notably too, Williams found himself in good company, little surprise considering the fact that his efforts over the past 40 years or so have found in the stellar environments of L.A.’s premier session scene. Those participating in the sessions included his pal Lukather (or “Luke” as he’s better known to his colleagues), keyboardist and composer Jay Gruska, Toto bandmate David Paich, guitarist Mike Landau, veteran bassists Leland Sklar and Nathan East, and seasoned British drummer Simon Phillips, among them. 

“It’s always just been a matter of simply going to them and asking them to participate,” Williams insists. “All I’ve ever had to do was to call them. They tell me when to come or where to bring a mike or whatever. Or I’ll record them remotely.  Whenever I’ve asked, they’ve never never declined.”

That of course is a nice position to be in, but at the same time, Williams never lacks for having work on his plate as well. “For the past few months, I’ve been making videos for other people as well as for myself, for the songs on the new album. The reason for doing that is that first of all, I just love doing it. I have so much fun making them. We don’t have the huge budgets that we used to have for making music videos, and that stuff really isn’t available to us anymore. So they’re simply home-made looking things. Still, they serve the purpose. It’s visual content to go with the music, and I just keep trying to do stuff that I think people will just be entertained by. Again, it’s just a way of having some accompaniment for the songs. That seems to be the way that people listen to music these days, especially on a medium like YouTube. So I’ve been spending my time making these videos and just trying to get better at it.”

Being off the road for awhile allows time for those undertakings of course, but it also creates a new challenge—that is, to ensure his vocals are perfectly primed when touring resumes. It’s a scenario Williams is well aware of, having been forced to abandon Toto during his first stint with the group in the late ‘80s due primarily to problems with his voice. While he eschews formal training or exercise, he’s still cognizant of the need to keep himself in shape. 

“When I’m home and not touring, I’m hiking,” he responds when asked about his regimen. “I actually just keep singing while I’m hiking. There’s some amazing hikes here and some real difficult hills and stuff. There’s one that actually goes by my old house and an old movie set where they used to film those classic westerns.  It’s a six hour hike from here. There are tons of trails for horses and stuff, and you can go you can go in a thousand different directions. So I’ll go up there for about an hour and be careful and keep doing the exercise while keeping my body hydrated.”

Clearly, this Dogz life suits Williams well.

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