Producer Photay’s New, Ethereal Album Based on Captured Audio

The 13-track album transforms hold music and spotlights the "magic within the mundane"

By producer Photay (aka Evan Shornstein), the 13-track album On Holdout on streaming and vinyl via Mexican Summer on 5 March—highlights the “richness in the mundane,” the artist explains. While touring in 2018, Shornstein spent just over a month recording snippets of surprisingly beautiful hold music during his downtime between sets—in airports, hotel rooms and over a friend’s shoulder while they called to report credit card fraud. “I would call up these numbers and strangely ask the receptionist to put me on hold. They were sort of confused, but a few of them would laugh and say, ‘Oh, sure,’ and it seemed to spark a little joy to them,” Shornstein says of the process. He also sought suggestions from friends who knew of a particularly interesting soundtrack somewhere. “My cousin, for instance, loved this concept and started giving me tips like his bike shop or his insurance having really, really good on hold music.”

These sound experiments, which transformed captured audio into rich ambient tracks, began as a means of escaping the stressful environments of life on the road. “I was a little stressed, feeling the pressure of preparing for shows and putting emphasis on creating this full new album. On Hold started forming very naturally and started with a friend’s phone call, actually. He was on hold trying to deal with credit card fraud and popped into the room. We’re laughing at his hold music because it was slightly different—this kind of mystical flute. I sort of spontaneously started recording it and running it through all these effects I had set up. We were kind of standing in awe at how beautiful it felt. And I took that recording with me on tour,” he tells us. In stressful moments—pre-show prep, busy airports—Shornstein returned to the original recording. “It just stopped me in my tracks. There was this deep sense of peace felt. It felt really significant even though it was, in my mind, this silly little thing I had done.”

In a way it was silly; he named songs using familiar catchphrases like “Please Hold” and “How May I Help You?” but Shornstein’s experiment quickly grew and became more serious. The resulting tracks were formed formulaically: there was a foundation laid by the original recording, with effects applied to that recording, and extra layers or subtle instrumentation Shornstein added after. “Some of the worst on hold music, in my opinion, yielded the coolest result,” he says. “Even the most sterile, aggravating music would yield great results once I started chopping it up and manipulating it.”

As an ambient album, On Hold, Shornstein admits, is meant to be able to slip into the background. A soundscape that fills space, leaves some blank. While it’s possible to concentrate on work while listening, the album also offers endless opportunity for immersion. Through headphones, the music can transport listeners. Closing your eyes and listening to the concept album in its entirety provides an exquisite sonic experience.

“I was thinking about on hold music as is and its intention: to be filling the space and to sort of put us at ease while we’re waiting,” Shornstein explains. “But I think they infamously do the opposite.” He aimed to alter the original recordings until they became something more uplifting, or at least sonically rich and engaging. “With the original recordings, I think we all have this association with it: you hear this music through the phone and it’s associated with an hour of waiting or just trying to get through to a real human—being stuck on hold,” he explains. “I’m looking at the record with a focus on the mundane. This was sort of a window into all this magic within the mundane.”

Even after the album’s completion, Shornstein carried the lessons he learned while creating it—especially in 2020 when his busy calendar suddenly cleared. He dropped a slighter version of On Hold on Bandcamp and donated the proceeds to the New York City Food Bank. Then he prepped the rest of the tracks for the forthcoming formal debut.

“It really resonated with the moment we were in, when we were quite literally put on hold. But it’s also a timeless concept, where there’s really no rush for people to hear it or process it. Who knows where we’re headed, but we’ll always have times where we’re waiting. We can kind of laugh at these thoughts, but they’re very real. We think, ‘Oh, our time is valuable. Why are we waiting right now? We have better things to do,’ but we should be looking at those moments as valuable. There’s certainly something to learn from them. Just personally, this record is a great reminder of that for myself and for anyone else who feels that way,” he says. “But I’m careful not to speak like I have a real grip on this because I feel as humans, we’re kind of still adjusting to how stimulating our world is now, and it is hard to come to terms with times when we have to wait or move slowly.”

On Hold, before it was a draft of a project with a tentative tracklist, offered Shornstein a sense of peace and relief, despite the source material. He hopes the album does the same for whoever hears it, with or without the backstory (which will unfold in a full-length film soon). “I also believe that things can just stand on their own. It’s pretty beautiful, musically speaking, when you can listen to something—you don’t know how it was made, where it was made or even who made it—and just instantly like it for what it is.”

On Hold is now available in limited-edition blue or black vinyl ($20) via Photay’s official online store.

Images courtesy of Mexican Summer / Photay