Low’s Mimi Parker was a voice of hope and healing in indie rock

The vocalist and drummer, who has died aged 55, was ‘a little reluctant’ to form a band with her husband, Alan Sparhawk. But her songwriting and hushed, strong voice saw Low create breathtaking music that was both beautiful and unsettling

In the early days of their marriage, Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s dream was simple. “We wanted to do something in life together – be in business together, or work together … Just be together,” Sparhawk told me in 2013. The solution materialised in 1993 when they formed Low, in which Parker sang and drummed until her death on Saturday of ovarian cancer.

They’d known each other since elementary school, growing up together in Clearbrook, a tiny city in rural Minnesota. Parker’s mother had been an aspiring country singer whose career had gone no further than a handful of shows in Minneapolis, but still loved singing old gospel songs with her daughters, occasionally performing at church or at funerals. After they began dating in their teens, Sparhawk would hang out at the Parker house, and jam with Mimi’s mother. It was there that Sparhawk and his future wife/bandmate first harmonised, singing Neil Young’s Heart of Gold together.

For Parker, music had been “kind of a dream, but not something I’d ever thought I’d do”. She had other passions anyway: sports, and riding snowmobiles across Minnesota’s wintery landscapes. But then Sparhawk suggested he and Parker form a band, giving her a snare drum and cymbal he’d found in the basement of the arena where he worked (Parker had played drums in her junior high concert band, years earlier). “She was a little reluctant,” Sparhawk remembered. “She’s really not terribly interested in being in front of people.”

That minimal drum set helped shape Low’s early, spare sound, but Parker’s voice – along with her songwriting – would prove her most crucial contribution to the group: a hushed, strong voice, holy yet human. “I vividly remember writing Words, off our first album, in our old apartment,” Sparhawk told me. “And then Mimi came in with the harmony, and it was like putting the spirit into a body, like taking something two-dimensional and making it three-dimensional.” The intimacy of their harmonies almost felt like we listeners were eavesdropping. Parker later told Ace Hotel that on the rare occasions she sang with anyone else, “it almost feels like I’m doing wrong … like I’m cheating on Alan, in a weird way.”

The spectral quality of their early demos charmed legendary indie maverick Kramer, who produced their debut album, 1994’s I Could Live in Hope. Critics christened their sound “slowcore” – a term the group detested. But Low soon transcended such pigeonholing, their unhurried pace and sparse arrangements earning a loyal cult following. After Gap soundtracked its 2000 Christmas ad campaign with the group’s glacial reading of Little Drummer Boy (off the group’s 1999 EP of holiday songs), Low found a modest commercial breakthrough.

The following year’s Things We Lost in the Fire was a masterpiece, defined by Parker’s contributions. Laser Beam was breathtaking, a resonant lullaby inspired by Parker watching her alcoholic father being Maced by a cop when she was a child, immersing the trauma in a healing stillness. On In Metal, she used the practice of bronzing a baby’s booties as a metaphor for the intense vulnerability that follows having a child – the fear they may come to harm, the sensation that parenthood itself is a fleeting experience, quickly ebbing away – singing “Partly hate to see you grow / And just like your baby shoes / Wish I could keep your little body / In metal”. Both songs were studies in Low’s ability to create music that is both beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

The albums that followed built on Low’s early acclaim, but also fearlessly dismantled and reassembled their paradigm, adopting rock dynamics with 2005’s The Great Destroyer and, on their three albums with producer and Bon Iver collaborator BJ Burton – 2015’s Ones And Sixes, 2018’s Double Negative and 2021’s Hey What – embracing a bold experimentalism in sync with darker lyrics which reflected a country in turmoil. Indeed, some of Parker’s finest songs came in Low’s final decade, not least Just Make It Stop, the highlight of 2013’s Jeff Tweedy-produced The Invisible Way. Over muted drums, emotive piano and brooding guitar strum, Parker sang with understated desperation – “I’m close to the edge / I’m at the end of my road” – but her harmonies offered a shard of hope, a sense that she wasn’t alone.

Like the wonderful All Night, from last year’s Hey What, Parker’s lyric seemed to allude to Sparhawk’s mental health struggles, which she told Carmel Holt, host of the Sheroes podcast, he had suffered from “for many years … It’s not one of those things that has an easy fix.” As the child of an alcoholic, Parker noted that she and Sparhawk were “a perfect storm”, but their love was strong enough that they were able to weather it. Indeed, whatever turbulence hit, their union endured, their chemistry a mutually sustaining thing. “It’s a good balance,” Sparhawk told me in 2013. “She’s shy. I’m still a stuttering 14-year-old boy with a guitar. My erratic psyche and her very in control, reserved nature have pretty much saved each other over the years. Mimi’s been the essence that’s made us able to do the things we do.”

It was on Holt’s podcast earlier this year that Parker revealed her December 2020 cancer diagnosis. In the interview she’d said that she’d had “some really intense chemotherapy” and surgery – “a crazy and surreal two years”. “Our time can be cut short,” she added. “We try to make each day mean something, to make a connection with our kids, our family.” The ability to make music, to release their universally acclaimed Hey What in the midst of this turmoil had, she said, “been a respite and a source of comfort … I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had, the opportunities to make beautiful music, to collaborate with Alan, to understand his chaos and his tendencies to mesh them with my calmness and my search for harmony and beautiful things.”

Contributor

Stevie Chick

The GuardianTramp

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