It was fate and academia that brought together Chicago folk duo Bittersweet Drive. James Bence and Molly Robison were 18-year-old freshman students at Columbia College Chicago when they met on their first day of class in 2008. The two quickly became friends and forged a rich artistic partnership.
"It was in a freshman orientation class," Bence says. "She heard me play one of my originals and I heard her play one of her originals. We immediately exchanged phone numbers."
"It clicked the second we met," Robison agrees. "We both thought, 'This is someone I need to know.'"
The two are close on stage and off. "We've been best friends now for eight years," Robison says. "James just got married in September to a wonderful girl. I got to play the wedding music, and it was the most beautiful experience."
The duo is on the eve of releasing a new self-titled EP, "Bittersweet Drive." It's a lovely collection of songs that showcases their beautiful acoustic guitar interplay and close vocal harmonies.
Bittersweet Drive is eager for the release of the new EP. From top to bottom, the project is a Chicago affair. The album is co-produced by Nicholas Tremulis, a veteran singer, songwriter and bandleader. Sharing production duties is Noam Wallenberg, an engineer and producer at Rax Trax Recording. The esteemed photographer Sandro Miller contributes stellar work on the duo's official photos.
Their first record was "Cold Were the Winds" in 2012.
"When we first started playing together, James already had a backlog of music that he had written," Robison says. "Our first record was a mix of what he wrote and the guitar, piano and harmony parts that I added to it. As our friendship progressed, we started writing together."
The new eponymously titled EP heralds a full and equal collaboration between the two. Bence is happy that the release reflects their true musical partnership.
"Our first EP wasn't really 'us'," he says. "It was a collection of songs I wrote. I brought Molly in on harmony, so the record was more me with Molly on top. For our new record, it was really important that it was both of us writing together. We really built this new record from the bottom up. It has a more defined sound than the first one."
Now both 26, the two have invested a serious chunk of time honing their sound. In college, they built a full set of material and performed at local places like Potbelly Sandwich Shop. They sang covers of "The Boxer," "America" and "Golden Slumbers."
As their musical partnership solidified, the two began writing original material together. They each shared a number of powerful influences. Both had grown up enthralled with the music of The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, two hallowed acts that shaped their love of harmony.
Bence was born and raised in Minnesota. "I've been singing my whole life," he says. "My mom likes to tell people that I sang before I spoke."
He took up guitar when he was 8 years old, listened to classic rock and sang in choir at school. By high school, he was focusing on blues guitar.
Robison grew up north of Chicago in Gurnee. "I was really young when I started singing," she says. "We had a piano in the house, and I started to mess around with it as soon as I could sit up."
At 12 she discovered the guitar. "I had a habit of picking up instruments whenever I found them and trying to figure them out. Guitar was the first one that clicked and stayed. It was way more portable than dragging a keyboard everywhere."
Her first musical influences came from the music her mom and dad played around the house. "My parents are big Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel people, so that's where I got the folkie vibe," she says. "When I got older I was more into Elliott Smith, Regina Spektor and Amanda Palmer. The Irish singer Fionn Regan made me want to do a more dramatic form of folk."
In their work as a duo, Bence and Robison share a similarity to the tight, close harmonies of the Milk Carton Kids. The acclaimed roots music duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan made a deep impression on the aspiring Bittersweet Drive.
"We saw them a couple years ago at the Old Town School of Folk Music, and that show blew us away," Bence says. "It was a very intimate, low-key show. They're also very funny. The Milk Carton Kids are probably our favorite band right now. I just love that constant two-part harmony the whole time. They are definitely an influence on us and a band we look up to."
The EP captures two singer-songwriters in sync in life and music. It's been that way since the day they first met in a Columbia classroom.
"I often mention to James that we were fated to sing together," Robison says. "I've never known another person who understands how to sing so well with me."