Guitar shredding used to a males-only club. But Lauren Langner Larson, the blonde pixie guitarist and vocalist of the Austin alt-rock trio Ume (pronounced ooo-may) is working hard to change that. And while she's joined by equally gifted female artists these days (Marnie Stern and Orianthi come to mind) in gender-diversifying the club, Larson is also training an army of insurgents that may have a wider and more lasting impact on this male bastion.
If you haven't yet heard or seen Ume, a little background is in order.
Lauren grew up in a tiny town south of Houston, and started playing in punk and thrash bands with 30-second songs when she was 14. Bassist (and now husband) Eric Larson and drummer Jeff Barrera met Lauren around the DIY punk scene in Houston and formed Ume in 2002. The band was a part-time activity for several years, releasing Urgent Sea in 2005 to little acclaim and less touring support. Blame that on the fact that Lauren was in graduate school in Pennsylvania working on a PhD in philosophy. It was a weird time for her—a time she describes as "living a very schizophrenic life where I would be working on a paper and have the urge to run down to the basement to play my guitar." In 2007, she finally realized her heart was really in her music, shelved academia and relocated to Austin where Barrera and Larson were now living.
The refocused band's Sunshower EP was released in early 2009. Featuring a more hook-laden sound, the release garnered good reviews, drawing comparisons with Sonic Youth and Blonde Redhead. Today, the band has developed a highly energetic stage show, and, with several tours behind them now, they have also garnered a significant fan base around the country, partly thanks to Lauren's guitar play, which like Stern's features a rather fluid, unconventional technique.
"When I first picked up the guitar my hands were so small I could not form barre chords," explains Lauren, who remains quite petite today.
To overcome her physical challenges, she developed her own alternative tunings (she favors a tuning of FCFA#CE for a lot of her playing) and riffs that don't rely on common pentatonic guitar scales.
And she's happy to share the wisdom she had to develop on her own. For the past three years, Lauren has been a guitar teacher and band mentor in Austin at Girls Rock Camp and Ladies Rock Camp, endeavors that are first and foremost about empowering women through music. Technique, she explains, is only part of the curriculum.
"I really like to explain to the girls that there aren't any rules they need to follow to play," she says. "They just need to work to find their own voice in their instrument to express themselves."
And when they see their normally low-key teacher unbottle herself with her guitar on camp stage? They definitely come away inspired.
"Girls that were too terrified to even talk are sliding on their knees and doing guitar solos by the end of the sessions," Lauren reports with pride.
But that's just the beginning of her support for fellow female guitarists. Lauren also recently started working with Guitar Center to help understand how to make their store friendlier for girls.
"I have horror stories of going to buy equipment and, while looking at guitars, getting the 'These guitars have a lot of pretty colors don't they?' treatment," she explains.
Not exactly the kind of treatment that such a guitar heroine—or any aspiring female guitarist—should be forced to endure. Especially not when Ume, which is currently finishing the last song for their next full-length release, seems on the verge of becoming an even bigger name.
This new disc should be an even broader release from the band, Lauren says. She and her bandmates are experimenting with the addition of some keyboards and synths for the new album. But they're also learning to tone things down, too. Lauren and Eric recently performed their first-ever acoustic performance.
"I was probably more nervous having to sit down in a chair to play than I've ever been on stage," Lauren laughs.
Somehow, we think she'll end up OK.