Local musician chases dream and degree

Mathematician. Musician. Two words that don’t always go together. Two words that don’t always keep company with the cool kid, “success.” But who wants to be cool these days — “success” should be one step behind yourself and two steps behind the dreams you’re following. It certainly isn’t the main priority for local musician and MSU grad student, Jon Cheryl, who’s pursuing a degree in one world and a passion in another.

Jon Cheryl’s life is a bit complicated. He’s currently pursuing a master’s in statistics, which he will complete in December. His bachelor’s degree, which he received from Clemson University in South Carolina, is in math. When asked how he ended up focusing his education on mathematics, he simply laughed and said, “I guess I’m just a nerdy white boy at heart.” Armed with only these details, one might struggle to imagine the other side of his life — the half dominated by music. But that’s the topic that lights up his world.

“If I could have exactly what I wanted, no consequences, I’d just play guitar and sing and write songs all day, for nobody or everybody,” Cheryl said. He’s certainly put in the work. He picked up guitar as a kid after admiring his dad’s, but willingly admits “for every dude that plays guitar, no matter what he says, he probably started to impress a girl, and I fall into that category, too.”

He also started performing young playing bass guitar at his church.  Now, after years of practice, he plays “just about any incarnation” of guitar (electric, acoustic, resonator, etc.), in addition to singing and songwriting. However, as Cheryl moved through his life, he treated music as more of a diversion than a priority, and it’s only recently that he’s begun to question that decision.

“For a long time, I thought that school, math and statistics were the wife, and that music was the mistress — but part of me feels like I’ve had it wrong all this time,” Cheryl said. “Music’s always been there for me, never asked for more than I wanted to give … [and] maybe school and math was what I was fooling around with all this time, and it was taking my eyes away from what I should have been looking at.”

“But maybe I’m all wrong and I’m just wasting my time with everything!” he added, laughing, effectively echoing a sentiment felt by many a college student.

Though “wasting time” seems to be an exaggeration, especially when it becomes obvious how much he loves what he does. Cheryl entered the Bozeman music scene at the Haufbrau years ago and has been performing — both solo and with other groups — ever since.  After he graduates, he’ll potentially pursue music full time, playing cover gigs and the like. Performing pays well enough to help him “make poverty level,” as he put it. However, he recognizes that such a lifestyle is precarious.

“I’m not 100 percent sure that’ll work out,” Cheryl said. “So I feel like it’s necessary to apply to some grownup jobs, too … [Something] ‘new-nerd.’”

If he had to pick a “practical” job, he’d head into data science, a field he’s quick to point out is more creative than one might imagine. But until a decision one way or the other is unavoidable, he’s going to keep a foot in both worlds. When asked if music and math gel in any sort of way, Cheryl hesitated before saying, “They do … in a very esoteric manner.”

Jon Cheryl will be performing at Ted’s Bar & Grill on Oct. 10, 406 Brewery on Oct. 16, Cold Smoke Coffee on Oct. 23, and at Norris Hot Springs on Oct. 31.