Evan Shornstein aka Photay released his latest album ‘Waking Hours’ via Mexican Summer on 12th June. Waking Hours ’is rooted in the chaos of modern life, and specifically our incessant need to stay busy, keep up with everything and never stop creating. Living this way can be an exhausting prospect, and it’s what sparked Shornstein’s search for stillness in the first place. On a basic level, the LP is about finding room to occasionally pause and take a breath, but escapism isn’t the end goal here. Shornstein is interested in cultivating the mental headspace to question our hectic status quo and simply ask if there’s a better way to do things. Musically, it’s the most personal and open-minded thing he’s ever created, a genre-agnostic ...
Evan Shornstein aka Photay released his latest album ‘Waking Hours’ via Mexican Summer on 12th June. Waking Hours ’is rooted in the chaos of modern life, and specifically our incessant need to stay busy, keep up with everything and never stop creating. Living this way can be an exhausting prospect, and it’s what sparked Shornstein’s search for stillness in the first place. On a basic level, the LP is about finding room to occasionally pause and take a breath, but escapism isn’t the end goal here. Shornstein is interested in cultivating the mental headspace to question our hectic status quo and simply ask if there’s a better way to do things. Musically, it’s the most personal and open-minded thing he’s ever created, a genre-agnostic effort that impressively builds upon his electronic chops while simultaneously venturing into pop territory and putting his own vocals center stage.
“In the process of writing this record I felt a growing sensitivity to time and impermanence, questioning how I spend my waking hours versus how I should spend my waking hours. Perhaps this is a product of growing older, or living in New York City, or maybe just our culture? I made this record in a city as opposed to Onism which was primarily conceived in the woods of upstate NY. This time around I felt challenged by my own notions of “productivity.” Waking Hours is a reflection of my own drive and an omnipresent feeling that we’re never doing enough. I think this pressure is exacerbated by the times we live in and not strictly unique to our physical location. Up until very recently, the pace of our world has been speeding up. This speed has felt normalized by our culture, our peers, our technology and our screens. Moving slowly, being still, doing nothing, spending time “off the grid” feels like the highest form of rebellion.
Fast-forward to present day and the current pandemic crisis, a vast majority of us have been forced to do just that. Most of our busy lives have been put on hold, forcing us into uninvited stillness. Does this shift our priorities? Our consumption? Does it change the way we think about our lives? How we spend our time … our waking hours?
This record navigates through the times we live in. A response to cultural pressures and social norms. In these controversial times, I am asking questions and creating lyrical reminders. The lyrics are a daily meditation. Sentiments to revisit over and over again as our lives ebb and flow.
This album is about time, stillness and peace within.”
– Evan Shornstein / Photay
Pondering these ideas required stillness, something that’s hard for anyone to come by, and doubly so in New York City. Shornstein hoarded it as best he could, whether he was losing himself in the studio or stealing a few quiet moments at home. His search for calm is at the very core of Waking Hours, and while Shornstein admits that making the album was therapeutic, it shouldn’t be mistaken for some sort of healing ambient excursion. Where Onism was a dreamy, awe-filled record inspired by the wonders of nature, Shornstein’s new LP frequently verges on pop and extensively features his own vocals. The music is still largely electronic, but it follows paths that not even Shornstein expected to take. “When I was writing, I was listening to tons of ambient and club music,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘Where is this pop-leaning stuff coming from?’ Singing felt like a new thrill, the next big step outside my comfort zone.”
First single “Warmth in the Coldest Acre” includes one of those steps. It’s the first time that Shornstein has ever used Auto-Tune, and it lends his vocals an ethereal quality that blends perfectly with the song’s woozy synths and percolating, Balkan-inspired percussion. Even bolder is “The People,” an unexpectedly funky, vocal-driven cut whose creaky rhythm is wonderfully adorned with electro-funk flourishes and sleazy saxophone.
“The People” also features the Buchla Music Easel, a semi-modular synth that’s been in circulation since the 1970s. It features prominently on Waking Hours, even though Shornstein initially had his doubts. “I’ve always been slightly nervous about getting too wrapped up in the synthesizer world and losing touch with songwriting or acoustic instruments,” he says. “Even now, I still get totally wrapped up in it, but I then try to bring it all back home and bring all of my influences together.”
“Is It Right?” is proof that those fears were ultimately unwarranted. A warm suite of plucked strings, soaring melodies,and quirky Buchla droplets—it’s also a showcase for Shornstein’s surprisingly sweet voice. Like much of Waking Hours, it feels intimate and inviting, but it also suggests that Photay is perhaps at his best when he’s blurring genre boundaries. “I really truly love all different types of music,” he says, “but I have been closely following electronic music and more club-oriented genres the past few years. This was a step outside of that, a song where I opened things up and gave myself the freedom to go anywhere.”
Part of that process also involved inviting more collaborators into his world, as Waking Hours includes guest appearances from Carlos Niño, Michael Lovett (Metronomy) and Gambian kora player Salieu Suso, plus backing vocals from Felicia Douglass and Kristin Slipp. The album also includes an expanded range of instrumentation; aside from the Buchla Music Easel, there’s also live guitar, acoustic piano, and of course, Shornstein’s own live drumming (he’s been playing since elementary school).
Shornstein sees Waking Hours as his most personal effort to date, but it’s by no means an insular album, literally or figuratively. The expanded range and cast of contributors has only strengthened his vision, and even though the album found Shornstein carving out his own corner for quiet reflection, he’s also made that corner big enough that everyone can join him for a mental breather.
1. Existential Celebration
2. Warmth in the Coldest Acre
3. Is It Right?
4. Fanfare for 7.83 Hz
5. Change in Real Time
6. The People
7. Rhythm Research
10. A Beautiful Silence Prevails