Electronic Music's Photay Discusses His Warm, Humanistic Sound and Making a Difference

New York-based artist Evan Shornstein makes music as Photay. The music he creates under that title is heavily indebted to a little bit of everything the world has to offer, from a glitchy synth to a hand-plucked guitar note. Generally speaking, it’s electronic music packed to the edges with surprising timbres from often traditional and sometimes surprising instruments, and all while it’s bursting with a love of tonality and texture. He’s sending out a love letter to the whole world of music with every track he releases. Pick a random track from his discography, press play, and let the love of it all sweep through you.

Let’s take the stand-out track “The Everyday Push” off his 2017 debut album Onism as a prime example of what Photay has to offer. It begins with some repetitive electronic beeps and slowly adds in a small keyboard line here and a heavily processed percussive beat there, building up to a pleasant little groove. Many artists would ride this out for five minutes, yet all of a sudden, what sounds like a marimba crashes the party, shutting out all the other instruments and asking for our full attention. Ten seconds later, everything is back in the mix, and it’s ecstasy. Build, breakdown, burst, bloom, and ear for the warmest of tones from the acoustic and organic to the deeply processed and alien: that’s Photay.

There’s more to the project than mere music, though, as Shornstein wants to leave a message for his listeners with each record. With Onism, he was exploring that nagging desire of wanting to be everywhere all the time, and the album is so wide and inclusive of sounds and rhythms, well, let’s say it completed its task. Being a public artist with a message comes with responsibility, though, and Photay does not shy from it. He understands that a musician needs to be conscious of the world around them and react appropriately and with a deeply felt love.

His new album, Waking Hours, has a message he wants to spread out to his dedicated listeners. “It’s about getting back to a really simple notion of just celebrating your existence and not necessarily attaching this huge story of who you are and what you do,” Shornstein says. “It’s about finding comfort in just being.” Yet, our world changes so quickly these days and since the recording of Waking Hours, America especially has been living through some trying times in the wake of a staggering death count from COVID-19 and the widespread protest of policing in the wake of the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd.

PopMatters talked to Photay about being a musician in 2020, why he sings so much on Waking Hours, and we even asked him to geek out on gear talk for a bit.

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To begin, you had a few pertinent posts on social media upon the release of Waking Hours. I know you have struggled with whether you should even promote your work as a white person during this time. Where do you think your music fits in at a moment of national crisis like this?

This record was born out of a growing external and internal unease. The accumulation of political disaster, environmental destruction, racism, and capitalism have been boiling. The pace of our world has been speeding up (perhaps up until the pandemic), and I’m not convinced that we’ve been able to process and internalize everything at that speed fully. Waking Hours speaks to the goal of slowing down in an effort to see clearly.

As a result, there is a questioning of systems and a clarifying of personal intentions. The goal is to become confident in that intention and to stay true amongst pressures of status quo and the so-called “normal”. Under the unfortunate circumstances of the pandemic, we’ve all been forced to do just that. To slow down and possibly take a longer sit with ourselves than ever before.

If there is a positive light buried amongst the tragedies, I think it’s the idea that a new foundation is forming. The normal of the past simply did not work. We will not return to that normal; we will only move forward. Waking Hours speaks to a slowing down but not hiding. There is a question posed on the record: “are you doing it for the people, or are you trying just to hide away?” The goal is not to do nothing but rather live a life with space to reflect, internalize, and refine intention. To see clearly. I think this is pertinent to racism on an individual level.

As white people, we need to educate ourselves on the many layers of privilege and racism. We need to refine our actions and see that we all benefit from privilege on some level. Perhaps many of us have sped through our lives without ever taking the time to fully stop, educate, and see systemic racism in action. To see our responsibility to fight it actively. I think the pace of our world, fueled by capitalism, has allowed many of us to go through the motions and comply with a completely racist system. As far as music is concerned, music is nutrition. We need it now more than ever to uplift, energize and innovate.

Any organizations you have been supporting that you want to share with our readers?

Equality for Flatbush: A POC-lead organization doing anti-police repression, affordable housing and anti-gentrification/anti-displacement work in Flatbush and across Brooklyn, NY.

The Black Feminist Project: An organization in Bronx, NY working toward racial justice, reproductive rights advocacy, and food justice through their Black Joy Farm, a seven-year community-led campaign to create a radical food-growing green space.

Black Composers Fund: The current western art canon has disproportionately excluded Black composers. This is a fund for commissioning work from Black Composers.

A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center: A library in Kingston, NY promoting literacy through teaching and learning about the African roots experience, including history and culture, through a dynamic exchange of information, ideas, and creativity. Everything is provided to the community for free!

Food Bank for New York City: Providing meals for those in need across New York City.

Like all artists in the time of the Coronavirus, you’ve had to change how you do your job. You used to DJ in New York City often, and I hear you used to travel to Germany to play extended sets. How have you been interacting with your music during this time of distance?

I had some great creative streaks in March and April. The time and space allowed me to focus. I was grateful for the downtime to create new music when I would be touring otherwise. Back in March, I made a spontaneous decision to release my record On Hold as a fundraiser in response to the pandemic. It was a turning point for me, seeing music’s power in fundraising and social cause. The past month has only strengthened and expanded that perspective, seeing music as a form of protest against racism and police brutality. I’m finding a new significance in the universal power of music. Music and its ability to transform minds where speech may not.

You have stated that Waking Hours was written well before the pandemic, but you feel it could be useful in the context of a widespread quarantine. Would you like to expand on that idea?

As I mentioned earlier, the record was written about slowing down in the midst of our accelerating society. It is about gaining a new perspective on time and examining how we use it. It is about being kind and accepting to yourself. It is about moving slow and steady through the ups and downs. It is about celebrating existence and being grateful for what is. It is about just being. It is about caring for ourselves and others amidst a ruling system that does not.

Although the pandemic is largely devastating, I think there is hope that the priorities of the collective consciousness are shifting since we’ve been able to do just that: slow down and see more clearly. It has shown us that the old “normal” was not sustainable. So much that the survival of our species has come into question.

Listening to all your albums, it may be hard for some to tell in spots because you do process a lot of your instruments, but it still shines through that you are a true collector of sounds. What instrument or instruments were most integral to Waking Hours? How about Onism?

The Buchla Music Easel, Prophet 6, Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Reverb, my friend Gabe’s Cello playing, Brass, Vocal Chords, peeper frogs and the most gentle plucking of a guitar. I would also add Gary’s Electric recording studio. This was my first time recording regularly in a proper studio, and it pushed me to incorporate more acoustic elements. Recording through pre-amps and outboard gear has really expanded my perspective on sound.

Onsim was largely centered around the Korg Minilogue, Korg MS-20, Electro-Harmonix Cathedral Reverb, Balafon and OP-1.

What’s your favorite instrument or instruments you’ve been toying around with lately?

My friend Sam and I recently bought a Dynachord Echochord Super. It’s a vintage German tape echo with six tubes. Even with the echo off, it transforms sound and adds a gravelly dirt-filled saturation.

Speaking of instruments, you seem to have fallen in love with the human voice on Waking Hours. About half of the tracks contain vocals by you. On all your releases, you had a few tracks mixed in with vocals, but never at this level. What brought about this change, and does having a vocal track change your approach to songwriting?

I started tasking myself with more minimal writing as a test against my maximalist tendencies. Singing felt like an obvious next step in filling out spacious arrangements. I was drawn to this newfound thrill and vulnerability. Rhythm and production are a language of their own, but on this record, I wanted to speak clearly and intimately. I always feel a strong current to keep experimenting and pushing timbre, but singing feels like a timeless statement. All that being said, who knows if I’ll even sing on the next record.

One of the most alluring features of your music is how it seems to unfold so mysteriously. Take a song like “Fanfare for 7.83 HZ” off of Waking Hours for example. It starts with some twists and turns and stretched-out dissonance, but then out of nowhere comes a powerful Copland-like theme. It makes one wonder how such a seemingly erratic song like this is written. Do you have a process you follow for your compositions?

I love surprises. I think in music, the element of surprise is a cathartic way of dealing with the mundane and waking up. I often sit on demos for a long time. I’ll hit this wall at the two-minute mark where nothing fits, and everything feels predictable. I often revisit a song or demo months later with a new state of mind. Sometimes I’ll combine sounds from two different demos made three years apart. It creates a diverse palette born out of different experiences and phases of life. On Waking Hours, I spent lots of time going back, rotating, excavating and completely derailing ideas. In some form, this was productive and created unconventional results. Conversely, there was too much overthinking, and I aim to embrace more raw energy moving forward.

Speaking of the construction of your music, Waking Hours is a highly collaborative album. Tell us about some of your collaborators and could you pin down some especially lovely moments during the collaborations leading up to the release of Waking Hours?

I was thrilled to record with Carlos Niño! He shut off all the lights before recording, and at the end of a take, he said “Yes! Yeah … yeah, there was a lot of energy in there.” He was right! The shimmering bells, the trembling shakers, and the almighty gong ignite a strong current.

I was honored to record with kora player, Salieu Suso. Although the goal was to record one solo, we ended up playing together for hours. Salieu on Kora and myself on a drum kit. Some beautiful recordings yet to be unearthed.

Waking Hours is an electronic record at its core, but the influences seem to be wide-ranging. Were there any albums or artists in particular that were stuck in your head while you were composing the music?

“Change” by Toshio Matsuura Group. I was inspired by the power instilled within one sustaining chord. “Maimona” by Ballake Sissoko. This record and this song have always kept my spirits up. Kora is one of the world’s most beautiful instruments. It is deeply comforting and heartwarming. “Modern Living” by Testpattern: I was inspired by the minimalism of this song. Particularly the drums and the lack of hi-hat. Memoria Das Aquas by Fernando Falcao. I’ve had this record on heavy rotation the past few years. Definitely inspired by Brazilian harmony and modal writing.

I know from your writing about your music that a main driver is to give back to the world some of the love you have been given, whether it has been through music or otherwise. Would you like to close out with some words for your listeners?

I’d like to thank you all for your continual support and open minds. I hope this music is a form of comfort, inspiration, and energy. We are all connected through our humanness, and I hope we can strengthen our support and care for each other. Promote and embrace change, but go easy on yourself. Do what you need to do in order to sustain change within yourself and the world. Lots of love from me to you!