Mimi Parker obituary
Mimi Parker, of the American alternative rock group Low, who has died aged 55 of ovarian cancer, had a voice renowned for its quiet, eerie intensity. Often blended in stunning harmonies with her bandmate and husband Alan Sparhawk, and enhanced by her delicate brushwork on the drums, her voice had an impact on the listener that was sometimes chilling, sometimes heavenly, always mesmerising.
On tracks such as In Metal, where the couple harmonised to a “degree of claustrophobic perfection”, according to a Guardian review of the 2001 album Things We Lost in the Fire, and Monkey, from The Great Destroyer (2005), later covered by Robert Plant, it was often as if they were sharing the same breath, rounding off consonants with the same control and measure.
While naturally shy and introverted, Parker began to emerge from behind Sparhawk’s more extroverted figure over Low’s 30-year recording history and take on lead vocals more. She did this while still playing her simple drum kit of snare, cymbal and floor tom, standing upright, all brown curls and baggy jumper, in the middle of the stage.
A few of her lead tracks showed how powerful she could be as a solo singer. In Holy Ghost from The Invisible Way (2013), a song later covered by Mavis Staples, a gentle vibrato bolsters her rich, beautiful delivery as she sings about the strange pull of faith in a fragile world. On the same album, her voice is full of rhythm and energy on Just Make It Stop. Her voice had the soft but urgent lilt of a country singer, full of both conviction and comfort.
While Low never had any mainstream breakthrough hits, they had a huge following, including in the UK, and many celebrity fans. First hearing the band whispering out of the radio when he lived in the US, Plant loved “the way Mimi Parker hangs on every vocal line after she’s finished – it was so sexy and so dark”. In 2017, when asked which 18 of his recordings summed up his career, including his time in Led Zeppelin, Plant picked two Low songs he had covered: Monkey and Silver Rider.
Parker herself heard her band, which also included a bassist, originally John Nichols (another five would follow), on local radio for the first time in dramatic circumstances. The song, the lead track off their 1994 debut album, I Could Live in Hope, was Words, about a tired man encountering someone wanting to burn his soul. It was played straight after the announcement of the death of Kurt Cobain.
Following on from the grunge movement, Low – who were later signed to Sub Pop, the same label as Cobain’s band, Nirvana, who were synonymous with grunge – became one of a slew of American alternative bands who took the genre down a different path, exploring atmospheric textures in their music. Parker and Sparhawk themselves liked to listen to bands with a more minimal approach to making music, such as the Velvet Underground and Joy Division. (They covered the latter on their 1996 EP, Transmission.)
Low’s 1995 LP, Long Division, included the single Shame, on which Parker sang lead for the first time. Picked up by the MTV reality show The Real World: San Francisco, it soundtracked the story of a gay man living with HIV. Parker told the Guardian in 2018 that it “became kind of a gay … I won’t say anthem. But a lot of gay men come up to me and talk about that song. They say that it really spoke to them.”
Their fanbase broadened further with their 1999 EP Christmas, which was picked up a year later by Gap – the brand used Low’s slowed-down, hymnal cover of Little Drummer Boy on a festive advert. The catchy, Parker-led Just Like Christmas tells us how we try to find Christmas in the wrong places, to a jolly beat accompanied by sleigh bells. Her character finds it in Oslo, after the snow has melted: “The beds were small, but we felt so young/It was just like Christmas.” She also covered Elvis’s Blue Christmas stunningly, “sounding like Carly Simon with a broken heart”, according to Betty Clarke in the Guardian.
Many music festivals and international tours followed, including a 2003 European support slot with Radiohead. Performances in the early 2000s were often done with the couple’s children, a daughter, Hollis, and son, Cyrus, in tow.
After the radio-friendly The Great Destroyer (2005), Low became more experimental, playing with the distortion and abstraction of sound and disproving the idea that age brings complacency. They released 13 albums in total, their most recent, Double Negative (2018) and Hey What (2021), the first to get into the UK Top 30.
Born in rural Bemidji, Minnesota, to Joy (nee Berg), a chef, and Robert Parker, a carpenter and mechanic, Mimi grew up on a farm with her two elder sisters, Cindy and Wanda. She enjoyed riding her snowmobile across the fields as a child and began learning the drums at 11, joining her junior high concert band at her school in Clearbrook, Minnesota, where she later became president of the school council.
She met Sparhawk when they were both in fourth grade. “I just remember this little red-haired, freckled kid coming into class,” she said. “He was cute.” They started dating at 15 and married when Parker was 22, in 1990, following her graduation from the University of Duluth, Minnesota. The couple never moved away from Duluth, buying a house by the harbour in 1997, and were often seen singing at their local church. Parker and Sparhawk were both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Her family was musical, too. Joy, an accordion player, had been an aspiring country singer. Sparhawk would play with the family, and he started encouraging Parker to form a band with him and Nichols in their mid-20s, bringing home a drum and cymbal that were left behind at the Duluth Arena, where he worked as a runner.
“We knew from the beginning that [our band] was going to be a little odd,” said Parker in an interview on the American podcast Sheroes in January 2022, in which she also revealed that she had been diagnosed with cancer. “Alan knew if we were going to be in a band together it would have to appeal to me, and I was more introverted, a little quiet, looking for beautiful, melodic things.”
Sparhawk said of his wife: “Hers was the voice of someone who is just singing, not trying to convince you of something. She was not singing to you. She was not singing to be noticed. Sometimes she didn’t even want to be seen. She just wanted to be.”
Parker continued performing with Low until the middle of this year.
Alan, Hollis and Cyrus survive her, as do her mother and sisters.
• Mimi Parker, musician, born 15 September 1967; died 5 November 2022