Live from the Laundry Room: Ed Isola ’15 and The 502s
Encouraged by his guitar-playing cousin, Ed Isola ’15 ordered a banjo online then fell down the YouTube rabbit hole, watching tutorials and memorizing parts of his favorite folk-rock songs. The self-taught musician began his odyssey as a first-year Davidson student, but he’s since graduated from Cannon Hall jam sessions to Bonnaroo, the massive music fest in Manchester, Tennessee.
Isola came to Davidson from Maitland, Florida, to join the wrestling team. The math and political science major planned to find a job in banking or real estate after graduation; instead, he’s the banjo-strumming, songwriting lead of the 502s, an indie folk band making a mark in the music world.
“Music was never on my radar at all,” Isola said. “When I first came to Davidson, if someone had told me that in five years I’d be in a band full time, I would have said ‘I don’t know how to play an instrument.’ My day-to-day life looks wildly different than I would have imagined.”
As his first collegiate wrestling season came to an end, Isola began to spend more time practicing music in his room. He taught himself songs from some of his favorite artists— Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers—who inspire the 502s sound today. That summer, he’d learned enough to play open mic nights in Orlando with his cousins.
Although he can’t pinpoint the exact moment the group decided to become a band, Isola thinks of that summer as the unofficial beginning of the 502s, named for the address of his childhood home. Both cousins still help with the band’s songwriting.
The Big Break
The band’s first real break came in the summer of 2015. Isola had just graduated from Davidson, and within 10 days of moving home to Maitland, he spotted an ad for a music festival headlined by Mumford and Sons and The Avett Brothers, just a couple of hours away in Okeechobee. The group signed up for a battle of the bands style competition, where anyone could enter for a chance to win a slot. They had no recorded songs at the time but they performed a few of the originals they’d been working on, and they won.
After years of family jam sessions and small open mic performances, Isola found himself playing alongside the likes of Post Malone, Lil Dicky and Robert Plant. In an especially surreal moment, he watched his long-time musical heroes, The Avett Brothers, wrestle each other next to the porta-potties.
“That was the first time I’d ever been backstage at a festival,” Isola said. “They put us in a tent right next to all the other performers’ trailers, so we got to meet everyone and take pictures with them. It definitely lit a fire in us to want to do more shows.”
Things moved quickly for the band after Okeechobee. They used their prize money from the battle of the bands competition to record their first four-song EP. Shortly after, Isola reconnected with middle school classmate Matt Tonner, who joined the band as the keyboardist. With six total bandmates and new instruments including the trumpet and saxophone, they set out to record their first album, Because We Had To, which they released in 2018.
“We’ve all been in the band for the past five years,” Isola said. “It’s a weirdly cohesive group that just naturally came together over time."
For the first couple of years, as the band continued to play shows and build up a small following, Isola worked as a credit analyst at a bank in Orlando. That was until a video of the 502s performing their song “What to Do” in Isola’s grandfather’s laundry room went viral on YouTube. They soon began to receive offers to tour overseas for weeks at a time, and Isola realized he would have to leave his bank job behind.
When he returned from touring, he found another job at a friend’s marketing company, designed specifically for musicians, that allowed him to work more flexible hours. In this role, Isola helped big name artists with their marketing approach and later applied what he learned to promoting his own band.
About a year ago, music became Isola’s full-time job. After releasing their sophomore album and several more EPs, the band’s audience continued to grow. Of the many shows they’ve played since their first festival, a few stick out to Isola as personal favorites and milestones of their success.
Last summer, they fulfilled a long-time dream of playing at Bonnaroo. Last Halloween, Isola got married in Ireland and played a show there the same evening. Another favorite brought Isola back to his musical roots, when he stepped out on stage at the Evening Muse in Charlotte to find the small venue packed with Davidson classmates, wrestling teammates and friends.
“I’ve always been very lucky to have a community of friends from Davidson who have supported me,” Isola said. “That air of enthusiasm and support has been the wind beneath our wings that has helped us succeed as a band.”
The band has another EP on the way and much to look forward to. After this summer, they will have played at Hangout Music Festival on the beaches of Alabama and at Lollapalooza in Chicago. They return to Charlotte Wednesday, June 7, to play a show at The Underground.
Isola is excited for the future of The 502s and pleasantly surprised by how far he’s come since the days of playing the banjo in his residence hall.
“I think Davidson students tend to be a little hard on themselves,” he said. “So many people end up doing something totally different from what they planned. I did my best while I was there, and since then, I’ve just taken things one day at a time, which has led me to where I am now. Things tend to work themselves out.”