Matt Sellick - Thunder Bay's Flamenco Wunderkid

June 2017

“Professional Composer, Recording Artist, Blanket Fort Builder,” says flamenco guitarist Matt Sellick over coffee.

“Blanket Fort Builder?” I ask. “Yeah! Who doesn’t love a blanket fort?” says Matt. “Besides, they’re the best places to record your music.”

With a gleam in his eye, I know Matt is only half joking. He is as unique, eclectic and passionate as his music, and ‘ordinary’ is not a word in his vocabulary.

Born and raised in Thunder Bay, Matt was always playing some sort of musical instrument. His sister is a talented flautist so when he was 5, he asked for lessons.
“I wanted to be like my cool older sister,” he says. “I played for maybe 4 or 5 years but then I met guitarist Dan Zadkovich so I decided to give guitar a try. I started with acoustic, moved to electric and then classical. It was great, but when I found an old Jesse Cook record, everything changed.”

Matt is fiercely intelligent and his active mind was fascinated by the intricate rhythms of flamenco, a dance-focused art form based on the musical traditions of southern Spain. It includes singing (cante), guitar playing (toque), dance (baile), hand clapping (palmas), and finger snapping (pitos). “It was the rhythms that snared me,” says Matt.

“It’s completely a different sound. I was coming from a classical background and when I tried to clap along, I found that the rhythms are not simple at all. Flamenco is a language that’s been around for hundreds of years and just the clapping has taken 6 years to master! The guitar rhythms translate into the physical movements of flamenco dance - if you know the structure of the dances then you can write to it.”

Matt’s skill in flamenco guitar led him first to meet the remarkable musical team of Flamenco Caravan, who encouraged him to continue his journey. This journey led him to meet and eventually play with the man who inspired it all - Canadian flamenco icon, Jesse Cook.

“I’ve learned a lot from Jesse,” says Matt. “He’s always traveling, touring, writing, recording and producing. He’s also always researching music in different countries because global music hugely influences him. He’s shown me that if you’re a musician, you will always be a student.”

Matt decided to go into the music program at Lakehead University to train in classical guitar and after two years, he switched his major from performance to composition.“It was the best decision I ever made,” he says.

Matt also credits his time at Lakehead University for fanning his interest in music history, theory, ensemble playing, and orchestral arrangements.“TBSO director Arthur Post phoned me up a few years ago and asked me about pieces for flamenco guitar and orchestra. I had learned about Vicente Amigo’s compositions and got to play one of his guitar concertos with the TBSO. It was then I realized that you couldn’t fill a whole program with flamenco guitar/orchestra because there simply wasn’t enough out there.” Because of this, Matt applied for a Canada Council for the Arts grant to write a suite to increase the amount of available material for flamenco performers. To his surprise, he got it!

“There’s a lot of challenges,” says Matt. “A piano can cut through the orchestra but a guitar is different. The sound must be amplified somehow and ultimately the orchestra needs to work around you. Composition is really complex – you have to hear it in your head, first.

Sure, I can use scoring software but I avoid it. I write it all by hand. There’s more commitment to the notes and the rhythms, otherwise it becomes computer programming rather than composition. It’s just a skill you have to develop.”

One of the fascinating things about flamenco is its insistence on authenticity and humanity. “Musician/composer Brian Eno said that the second you take out what makes a medium imperfect, people will start trying to put the imperfection back in. That tells you that the thing that the medium is containing is too powerful for the medium to contain.” Much like jazz, in flamenco mistakes are not covered up and improvisation is a way of life. Matt says this is the heart of flamenco. “If you throw a singer, dancer and guitarist into a room, they should be able to put on a show.” He smiles. “While I’m playing, I’m dancing on the inside.”

Like his mentor Jesse Cook, Matt loves to travel and during university, he continued summer studies in Spain, first in a school then with a private instructor outside Madrid. Now, he can often be found in Toronto and Montreal, where there are vibrant flamenco scenes.

“I LOVE Montreal,” he says. “It feels like a small European town. The vibe is so much like Spain – there’s music everywhere.”

When asked if he’d be moving any time soon, Matt grins sheepishly.“Why would I?” he asks. “Everything I need to do, I can do from here. It’s cheaper to fly to Toronto or Montreal than live in Etobicoke.” That’s good news for music lovers in Thunder Bay.

Matt hopes to do another performance with the TBSO one day and is currently pitching his new suite for flamenco guitar to orchestras across the country. He is a regular at the Foundry, Chapters/Starbucks and other music venues around the region. He also has two CDs available for purchase in Chapters, New Day Records and Take 2 Boutique, as well as online at iTunes and Bandcamp. “And where were your CDs recorded,” I ask, suspecting the answer. “In a blanket fort in my basement.”

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Heather L. Dickson is a photoshop guru, zoologist and author of 6 novels.

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