Mimi Parker Low
Mimi Parker 2022

What Part of Me: Remembering Mimi Parker (1967-2022) of Low

Low’s minimalist sound and orchestration depended on the voice and steady drumming of Mimi Parker, which provided an essential heartbeat for the band. 

What if Bob Dylan had never left Minnesota to seek his fortune in Greenwich Village and beyond? What if he had returned to Hibbing after dropping out of the University of Minnesota and reformed his high school rock ‘n’ roll band, but slowing down its Little Richard-Elvis Presley influences by two, three, or even four beats until their tones were lost in the mix? What if Dylan committed himself to sing in a perpetual minor key, exploring further, and even exclusively, the emotional landscape established in 1963’s “Girl from the North Country” with its suggestions of empty fields, unlit farmhouses, and embankments of winter clouds, with the memory of an unrequited love imparting the only sense of warmth amidst this darkness? And what if, by miraculous fable, Dylan split in two, a woman and a man, with two voices harmonizing to convey two kinds of truth at some moments, a singular truth at others?

This image is one way of approaching the sound of Low, a Duluth, Minnesota-based musical act cofounded by Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. They were also husband and wife. Parker recently died from ovarian cancer on 5 November at the age of 55, after a struggle for two years. In addition to Sparhawk, she leaves behind two children. Though the band has had an intermittent rotation of members since its founding in 1993, her passing leaves the future of Low in question. Certainly, the group would not be the same in the unlikely event it does continue. Frequently stripped down to the essentials, their minimalist sound and orchestration across albums depended on the voice and steady drumming of Parker, which, in two ways, provided an essential heartbeat for the band. 

Have you ever listened to a song with a lump in your throat the whole time? Listen to “Sunflower” the opening track from Things We Lost in the Fire, their fifth album, released in 2001. Listen to it a second time, this time more closely to the lyrics, and you might start crying, albeit without knowing exactly why. It’s perfect.

Yet “Sunflower” offers a tone of redemption and a prospect of recovery when compared to an earlier track like “Lullaby” from their first album, I Could Live in Hope (1994)—a baleful, slowcore epic at over nine and a half minutes that seemingly picks up where Slint left off at the end of their swansong Spiderland (1991). Indeed, Low belongs partly to that early cohort of post-rock avatars who had listened to Slint and, say, the Cowboy Junkies circa The Trinity Sessions (1988) to produce music that was deliberate in rethinking the possibilities of melodic structure, rhythmic pacing, and understated production.

I am thinking here of other Midwestern bands and artists—especially those located in Louisville, Kentucky, like Slint—such as Rodan, Rachel’s, Shipping News, and Tara Jane O’Neil. The name Parker and Sparhawk chose for their project suggested a tendency and a desire to occupy lesser-known frequencies just above the din of ordinary life. 

Yet Low continued to experiment with their sound—Sparhawk has refuted the characterization of being “slowcore”—by opening up in ways that enabled a new set of ambitions involving more dynamic guitar work, electronic beats, tape loops, and, not least, Parker’s expanding vocals, whose range brightened across their 13 studio albums. Low’s initial melodic and lyric overlap started to separate, revealing new tensions of feeling and expression to be surveyed. If the music became melodically sunnier, even potentially danceable in a few instances, this sanguine perspective was frequently undercut by lyrics that could express anxiety (“If I could just make it stop”) or bitter sarcasm (“What part of me don’t you know?/ What part of me don’t you own?”) in equal measure. Still, even at their bleakest, the dual vocals of Parker and Sparhawk served as a reminder that no one is ever entirely alone.

Low’s last three albums—Ones and Sixes (2015), Double Negative (2018), and Hey What (2021)—became ever bolder through production by B. J. Burton, who has worked most prominently with Bon Iver. These outings marked departures into a sonic terrain resembling those mapped out by Radiohead and even Bjork, the latter reference substantiated through the at-times otherworldly vocals of Parker. These albums reflect an eccentric but considered journey from their first two albums, which were handled by Kramer, best known for crafting Galaxie 500’s dream pop sound.

Are these recent albums by Low happier? Not necessarily. At this point, though, their music had inhabited many film soundtracks and commercials and had even been covered by Robert Plant on his album Band of Joy (2010). Their characteristic inwardness had turned progressively outward to embrace the world more fully, with the harmonies of Parker and Sparhawk providing the thread of continuity that cohered and anchored their entire project. 

Despite its fundamentally aural nature, music has a strong visual component, manifested in the vantage point a band or songwriter brings to the foreground. This observation applies to Low. The initial comparison to Dylan may appear unfair, even fanciful. Nonetheless, Parker, Sparhawk, and Dylan share a geography – Dylan was born in Duluth – as well as a spirit of experimentation by recording attempts at getting specific ideas across that reflect either myths, as in the case of Dylan, or moods, as more frequently with the case of Low.

Furthermore, Low, like Dylan, has brought skepticism and a worldview born from forgotten, lower strata, in-between places where art doesn’t seem possible. Yet, Parker and Sparhawk have made the argument that you don’t need to leave home to create and acquire such virtuosity. The materials for such visions are readily available. They can be found in small regional cities and crossroad towns, with the friends you make in elementary school, the person you marry and start a family with, the person once sitting next to you, and who is now gone.