The Jonatan Bäckelie Story

About growing up a mystic, and eventually deconstructing love.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Curiously this questions of what you should ‘be’ is posed to nearly every child in the western world. It’s not decided for you, that because your mum and dad was in the textile industry, or being bakers or farmers, you will be one as well. I had my answer when I was just 4 or 5. “I want to be a preacher and an artist”. But it turns out, the road to it and what it entails revealed itself to be a very different path from what I thought. But. I got there. Today, I am a preacher and an artist.

I didn’t grow up a happy child. Whenever adults said how carefree the world a child inhabits is, I could never relate. I never had the sense that it was easy to be me. But one thing was always important to me: Connection.

Connection comes in three shapes: Connection to yourself, connection to others and connection to ultimate reality, or as some would call it, the divine. Because how can we know how to act or direct our lives if we can’t grasp the truth about reality?

I grew up in a very charismatic setting, where people weren’t only speaking in tongues, they were screaming in tongues, pushing each other to the floor and ‘blessing each other’ in these and other peculiar ways. I have mixed feelings towards this upbringing. Not only was clearly abusive behaviour such as hitting your children encouraged, and most toys (especially videogames that I really liked) were occult and sinful. But there was also something good that made an impact.

Although presenting a very narrow theology that expressed how pretty much everyone else was going to hell, and that even mainstream Christians such as Church of Sweden wasn’t even ‘real Christians’ at all, there was something ‘real’ about part of the experience. These people came to worship with the explicit intention of connecting with the divine. There was a real expectation to encounter God, and encounter I did.

These people have built a system of worship that is almost guaranteed to put you in an altered state of consciousness. However, they’re not the only ones who have managed to build such a reliable system prompting mind altering states. All religious traditions have their own techniques for altering states of consciousness, whether it’s somatic (and often) loud techniques such as music, chanting, dancing, yoga, praying loudly, or spinning on the spot in circles. Or there are the contemplative ones, harder to observe as an outsider, but equally powerful, such as silent prayer, and meditation. Most traditions seem to favour their own particular techniques, but it’s not a matter of one replacing the other, one system being more advanced than another one – these sacred techniques still, to this day, exist alongside each other.

So, here’s my beef. In the circles I ran, everyone proclaimed with their words that ‘yes, God is bigger than our comprehension, bigger than we can ever put into words’. But God beyond comprehension, approached as a mere mystery, wasn’t going to cut it. So even though they got the starting point right, they got the rest wrong. It was 0,1% God as mystery, and 99,9% historical Jesus, read in such a way that there could be no ambiguities, no room for different interpretations. (Never mind that the Bible itself contains four gospels with varying accounts of Jesus.)

So, I found myself in a context that both felt like a straight jacket and at the same time was exhilarating, due to the altered states it provided.

What changed everything? Rave culture.

When ‘rave’ became a thing I was actively aware of (I think I was in fifth grade, so probably around 1992), it changed my life. The music was unlike anything I had ever heard. Breakbeats, repetitive drums, uplifting synth riffs echoing out. The energy of the music was unlike anything I’ve heard.

Some part of my pre-teen consciousness must have registered the similarity with the ‘usual’ altered-state-producing techniques used in the Christian circles. I was hooked. Also – fun fact, both ‘rave’ describes pretty well the state the 50-something-year-olds in the chapels were doing.

And the word techno, derived from the greek tekhne, originally means art, craft or skill – a method or system of making or doing.

For me it was instantly recognisable that this music was a well crafted tool, providing a method that allowed the dancer to go on a spiritual inner journey, an untapped vast landscape where, once again, the divine could be encountered.

I even remember one instance where I gathered the courage, at age 14, with sweaty palms and a voice cracking up from nervousness, to hold a small talk about dancing as a spiritual practice – to my fellow peers in my local Pentecostal church (it’s a small wonder they allowed me to)!

For some reason, it would take me almost fifteen years, before I seriously embarked on a journey that would land me firmly in the musical landscape of the mystical, and a few more before I became a fully fledged dance music shaman.

After a few years in the music industry, being blown around by the winds of change and jumping on various opportunities that others told me was ‘good for me’, I re-connected to my core beliefs: Life is about connection to yourself, others and the divine.

I entered a demanding process of trying to first of all connect with something deep and true within myself, musically. Shutting out what everyone else thought, or who may or may not listen in the end. I also did a masters degree in Theology, gathering more existential tools by the hour.

I started looking inwards, and what I found was the not-so-happy child, which I had carried around and somehow neglected for decades. There was certainly a darkness to my lyrics and soundscape. But I came to realise, that darkness is essential in music. No one wants to hear songs without a deep bass. The deep and dark frequencies makes you alive. And somehow music makes a fine analogy for life; music is best when the contrasts of highs and lows come together. And life is the same. It’s so much richer once you accept that darkness and light makes up exquisite contrasts, and should be allowed to unfold.

The music that had started to pour out of my inner landscape was often a hybrid of bent-out-of-shape drum patterns, and lyrics about truth, love, beauty, uncertainty and how reality was organised. I came up against the limitations of language, but then I wrote about that.

Music is not only a vehicle for delivering ‘the right theology of words’. Music itself is the bigger theology. It provides a more vast space to dwell in than words can. Music can fill you and be all around you in a way that only words can’t.

I spent six years in the studio, and one day I struck me: This is the album. I called that album “Darkness on the edge of Ecstasy”. Yes, I borrowed more than a little from Bruce Springsteen’s album title “Darkness on the Edge of Town”. But the vision was informed by the mystic John of the Cross, who in his book “Dark Night of The Soul” speaks about how the mystery provides ecstatic experience, but that resorting to, longing for, and being geared towards ecstasis can make the rest of your life seem empty. So not only the raver’s longing for their (sometimes drug-fuelled) next techno marathon could be struck by this, it seemed. Catholic monks had already figured this out, without any breakbeats or MDMA. Life is unbearable, sometimes without the altered state, and sometime because of the contrast to the altered state and the communion with the divine, seemed to be the lesson. A tightrope walk, indeed.

But things were about to get worse …

… and the darkness would close in on me in a terrifying and real way. In 2015 my partner and I had just relocated to the other side of the country, to a beautiful new home in the countryside. And after ten years together – we got married on our tenth anniversary as a couple. Three weeks later, she decided that she was going to leave, for good. Cut off from my whole network of friends and family, I was longing for deep and meaningful connection but found myself completely isolated. The serene secluded countryside paradise, was now proving to be near total isolation instead. I plummeted into a deep depression, filled with anxiety, and had a hard time even getting up in the morning. There was only one thing that still worked for me: Music.

I can honestly say that I’ve never become the same again. Perhaps both for good and bad. There was still things I wanted to share with the world, that I had picked up on my journey. And although it was an extremely painful period, I learnt more about myself in a couple of years than I’ve done throughout my entire life before.

At the same time as I slowly started to build my life back up again, constantly falling over and lying there on the ground, panting with exhaustion, I came to a realisation.

It became clear to me that my story from this point had to go down two paths. The path of the human, and the path of the mystic.

This fork in the road made so much sense. After having written about the mysteries more than about humanity within an experimental musical guise, I realised that the message got lost. It was simply too much experiments and too much mystery, at the same time. It dawned on me that I already knew the best method for connection to the mystery: techno. This sacred ritual of dancing was where I could be the theologian, or as it is called in Swedish: Teologen. The shaman of the early human tribe was both the spiritual and musical leader. So is Teologen. I had rediscovered the powerful techniques to produce mind altering states through dancing to the repetitive banging of the drums. And this time I wasn’t a nervous 14-year-old with sweaty palms. This time I was fully equipped with the language, the knowledge and the skills to lead people on this inner ceremonial journey.

The Jonatan Bäckelie project is more about the other two connections: those in the material world. Connecting to ourselves and others. I started work on what I thought would be a “divorce-album”. Break-up-albums seems to be a genre of their own, that you almost have to make as an artist at some point. But having read an immense amount of philosophy, I didn’t want to end up with banal songs with lyrics that seemed stolen from a hallmark card.

I drew my inspiration from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the father of so-called deconstructionism. At one point in his life, an author asked Derrida if he could write a biography of Derrida’s life. ‘Sure’, said Derrida, ‘If I can deconstruct your story in the footnotes’.

And so began a new journey. Sometimes I would blast the full range of human emotions of long, belonging and connection (and its opposites). But sometimes, I would also go into deconstruction-mode. For example: What if we as people are more connected, imprinted upon, by each other than we’d like to think? After ten years of merging with another person, and half of that merger leaves: What is left? That person will have radically changed in countless ways from who he was before that relationship began. Or what if it turns out that we revert into a cell of our own making when the world takes a toll on us. What if we sometimes find ourselves in a destructive relationship with our own sorrow, as if it was a person, a lover that you can always count on, but that in the end makes you feel bad? And when we wish each other to stay safe, what happens to bravery? Is staying safe something that brings us joy, or traps us in a too small comfort zone that never grows? Questions like these are now at the forefront of the Jonatan Bäckelie-project.