Throughout most of 2020, Joseph Williams worked on Denizen Tenant, an album out February 26 that encapsulates all of who Joe is, where he’s at in his life, and what he’s up to musically.
The list of credits under Joseph Williams’ name goes on and on in the best way possible. Everything from The Lion King’s original soundtrack to Toto’s greatest hits has been graced by Williams’ presence and, thankfully, we can add new music to that roster of projects. The muli-faceted artist spoke to AQ all about this spectacular upcoming record, how it came to be, and all of the enchanting guest appearances hidden within it – which range from dream collaborations years-in-the-making to close-to-home features a-lá COVID-19.
Your upcoming album is titled Denizen Tenant. At what point did you decide that that was what’s going to be the title that encompasses the entire record?
You know, as I was finishing songs and getting lyrics together and everything, the idea of that title came up. I just thought it was kind of clever and very different. The meaning of it is kind of a funny thing, too, so I just thought it might be an interesting title.
It’s very memorable. It’s unique.
Yeah. It’s actually, probably, one of the more unique songs on the album, also. It stands out a little bit and has a fusion kind of thing going on.
I absolutely agree. I loved the track. It’s groovy, but it’s not really in your face. When did that one come up in the writing and recording process?
That part was in 2020 – most of the whole album was done then. I hooked up with this guy, Steven Overton, who I co-wrote that song with… and covered another one of his tunes. I just fell in love with his style and stuff. We got on well and started collaborating and that’s how that happened really. He ended up being a very, very good and strong part of the record. Steven Overton is one wonderful talent, that guy.
You know, I was wanting to ask you about all these collaborators and contributors on this album. I even read that your daughter has her own musical cameo on the record.
She does! Both of my daughters appear on the record. Both of them are terrific singers and are singing backgrounds on several songs. My daughter, Hannah, who is my older one, is singing the Peter Gabriel song with me, so that was great.
That’s amazing. How did that come about? Did you ask her? Or was it more of like, “Hey, Dad. I’d really like to do this with you?”
No! [Laughs] She would never come to me and say something like that. I had to coax her, for sure, into doing it, but I just love that song. While I was taking a break one day, literally like working on another song, I was watching some YouTube stuff and the Peter Gabriel song came up. It was the original video and it just reminded me how much I loved it and what a great song it was. So while I was sort of taking a break, I just started messing around with ideas. I was to do a version and then I just got carried away and ended up sort of finishing it then, the track. Then once the track was finished and I realized that I was going to actually have this thing on the record, I had to figure out who was going to sing the Kate Bush part of the original thing. I just thought that the lyrics also could work very well in a father-daughter kind of conversation also. So I thought that that was a good idea and my daughter is such a great singer with a very professional, wonderful, sweet sounding voice. I just thought it worked well.
Well, it came out really phenomenally and I think it pays homage to the original track, but it’s still very authentic and in the setting that you made it, and I really, really enjoyed it.
Kind of on that same line of people you worked with, there was obviously a bit of a Toto reunion on the single “Liberty Man.” I think that is such a stellar track, so atmospheric and beautifully composed. Did you have the guys in mind for this song or did it come about right alongside them?
It kind of came about as the song was coming together and then being finished. You know, it was a piece that I had started a couple of years earlier, just in terms of a musical idea that I had pieces of. Then, I think it was 2019, I was with Dave playing him some ideas and thought that, “You know, this song is missing something.” And so I went up to Dave’s and Dave, of course, was so brilliant. He sat down and immediately kind of found what was missing, which was really the chorus. So that was how the song came about and how it was written and created. Once it was finished, and it was a very much of a collaboration with me and Dave, I just figured this might be the one to pull in some of the guys and have a track on the album with them. It felt right, like Toto.
I felt that, too – reminiscent of early Toto, but still very modern.
Good. I mean, that’s exactly what we want to hear. It’s just one of those really interesting songs. Simon Phillips, who I got to play drums on it, instantly came to mind, just his style fits it. He’s definitely one of my favorite players and it just kind of fell into place.
That’s so special. And I feel like you’ve worked with some amazing artists and musicians very extensively over the years. How important is it to you to have such close knit and creative collaborators on your side? Because I feel like there are a lot of musicians who might look towards working with people with a lot of accolades or a lot of skill rather than true connection or a positive rapport.
To be honest with you, it’s even simpler than that really. I know all of these guys. They’re my friends – for most of my life! And so to be honest with you it’s easier then, you know what I mean? I actually could have a wishlist of people that I would want to work with, but why do that when some of your friends are some of the best, virtuosos and musicians out there? That was, and is, not a difficult decision to make.
Of course! Another single from the record – and one that I love wholeheartedly – is “Never Saw You Coming.” It is so melodic and inspiring. I think it has such a flare to it and, to me, it really just shows just how well-rounded of an artist you are. So, can you tell me a bit about the writing and recording process for this track and how it came to be a single?
Well, it came about as a single just because out of the batch of songs, I felt that it kind of best represented the album’s sound and everything. It best represents where I’m at musically and everything that’s going on. I first came up with the idea for it with my friend and co-writer Barry Bragman back in 2016. We started messing around with ideas for songs – he’s got a little studio and he writes hundreds of these great little pieces of music and I go through them and listen to them and find something. Then we usually start working on something based on that. Years ago we were recording some demos and some ideas, developing some different things, and so that was one of those pieces that just never got finished. I pulled it up sometimes and we worked on it a little bit for a while, but it wasn’t until 2020 when I knew the body of the work was going to actually be finished.
It’s a really fantastic song. I think it’s going to be a fan favorite from here on out.
Well, I hope so. Like I said, I feel like that’s a good representation of where I’m going. I guess you could say, sort of, that I just thought that song is the most me. It made sense to sort of have it as a lead track.
I’m glad that you said that because, like I said, I listened to it and I felt like it was all encompassing of you and your skill. I’m glad you feel the same way.
Absolutely, absolutely right. That’s great.
You and your friend / bandmate, Steve Lukather, also known as Luke, are actually releasing records on the same day – both solo projects, but there’s some collaborative efforts between each. I got to talk to Luke yesterday and he said that part of how you guys work together so well still is because, at the end of the day, it is effortless. I was wondering, for you, how do you keep that bond musically or otherwise alive and well with him?
Well, when we stopped touring in 2019, we knew there was going to be a huge amount of time off – but not this much. Then we came back with another version of the group during that time, during that year, during most of 2020. It was then that we spent more time together than we have in a long time, other than when we’re on the road. That just sort of began the whole thing. Really, I hadn’t really spent as much time with him on a personal level as I had during 2020. So we got real close and just started brainstorming ideas for things that we could do since COVID prevents us from tourings. We have spent a lot of time together sort of coming up with ideas for future Toto and our solo albums. We’re also just good friends. I mean, I’ve known him since I was a kid. Our friendship really kind of developed into much, much more, though, in 2020. He’s a brother.
It’s great to know that something good came out of 2020, I mean, two new albums from the two of you guys, and a friendship that’s closer than ever.
Absolutely. It’s been great. Working on his album was a joy. It’s such a special album from him. It’s very different from mine in that he recorded the whole thing in a week with a bunch of musicians all at once, as opposed to the way I kind of produced it, which is all over the map. They’re both different, butI think it’s very cool that one was very different, but at the same time, you know kind of compliment each other. It just made sense that we put them together as a package and do the whole thing combined.
You’re absolutely right. I think that you really made a good point saying they compliment each other, because like you said, Luke’s album was done live and it is beautifully haphazard, but personal. Yours is personal, but in the sense of it was more intricately crafted and more compositionally based. I loved both and I really did.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. They’re very different in that way. Mine is probably closer to what would be a new, more modern Toto album kind of as opposed to Luke’s. But the two of them, as you know, I’m singing on his record and wrote a couple of those tunes and he’s playing all over mine and sings The Beatles’ song with me. Just by virtue of those things, putting the projects together made sense.
Joe, your credits as a musical icon are immense and, quite frankly, legendary. With all of these projects you have embarked on over the years, as a frontman, studio musician, voice artist,or otherwise, what has this period of lockdown and pseudo-downtime been like? Because while I know you worked on this record, that’s one thing in a year that probably was scheduled to have many.
It’s difficult. I mean, first of all, not being able to tour for guys like me and Luke is horrible. We both love to do it. We love to be performing on stage. That’s where we really have the most fun, so not being able to do that was fairly difficult – horribly difficult. Not to mention the fact that both of us have lost friends to this virus. The whole thing was just so bloody awful. The thing for me, just the way I am, is not touring, because when I’m on tour, I’m really healthy and I just love being out there. Without having that, I had to decide that during that I was going to create as much work for myself to do as I could. Whether or not it was going to be heard or used or anything didn’t matter, it was just to sort of keep my mind occupied and busy without going crazy because we’re all sort of locked up and cloistered. That’s kind of what saved me – just diving into work on a daily basis. It’s tough on all of us, though. It’s just been, been very, very horrible.
I completely understand that. I’m glad that music was there for you as an outlet and a way to express yourself. Obviously 2021 is going to continue to look up just a little bit, because you get to release this album and your fans can listen to it! That’s a win for both of us, I think.
Absolutely. And also, as these vaccines go out. Especially over in Europe where we do most of our touring business, we’ll be back at it probably a lot sooner than later with the vaccines. We’ve already got dates booked towards the end of the year and, God willing, everybody will hopefully get better from this thing so we’ll be able to get out there. It’s just going to take some time. It’s not like people are never going to go to concerts again.