The Element of Mimi Parker

The Low vocalist and drummer was an essential component of the Minnesota soundscape.

Photo by Steven Cohen for First Avenue
WORDS BY Katie Dohman

In Minnesota, it sometimes feels like there are actually five elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Low.

The slowcore pioneers, 13 albums deep, continued to push their experimental, beautiful, and sometimes uncomfortably discordant drone to increasing critical acclaim and growing fan base, an evolution musicians dream of. Despite its often-dark tone, Low maintained a preternatural ability to prop a listener up—like a drive through the underworld toward something resembling healing. The trudging, chiming ‘Try to Sleep,’ was a perfectly timed beacon for me once, weeping in my car to the wisp of Mimi Parker’s voice, as though she was reassuring me personally of the terrible—but, hey, don’t forget—tremendous privilege of loving and losing someone.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime cosmic windfall when two voices zip up so beautifully together, a double helix of DNA, the very essence of life itself—and drummer Parker and her husband, guitarist and vocalist Alan Sparhawk, had it. There are few bands as noisy and complicated that I’d be willing to bet money could convert people who don’t previously “get” the live music they’re about to experience, but Low tops the list: Any audience member could be enchanted by their hypnotic, dazzling performances. And now that perfect-harmony voice has uncoiled from her husband’s, unspooled into a realm only Parker knows, because she died November 6 at 55 years of age, after two years of living with ovarian cancer.

Parker possessed a voice and percussionist’s hand that was both not of this world and intrinsically of this world—the parts of the world that are too vast to be knowable, like the depths of the ocean or the space between the top of Kilimanjaro and anywhere else. She was, in ways, a kind of Mother Earth, her omniscient and otherworldly voice threading through pine forests and bouncing off the waves of a lake. It was calm and steady and capable of complete devastation. Loving and lilting, but filled with the knowledge that we are all lurching through our own deeply personal, tortuous hikes, awkwardly hoisting our sloppy, spilling buckets of hope despite all the evidence to the contrary that we should press on. Her music was like the tectonic plates that hold us up and form our lands and borders with the sea, but also tear and quake and grate.

Parker provided her “touch”–the singular fingerprint drummers imbue to the surfaces they strike—generously through a deep catalog, the comings and goings of band lineups, marriage, motherhood, touring, and the cancer that stole her. Her voice was translated into covers by Robert Plant (who dedicated parts of a live performance to her shortly after learning of her death, including his version of Low’s ‘Monkey’) and layered over holiday Gap commercials, but Parker remained an ever-present Minnesota presence that was a present to us all, a lighthouse shining from the shores of Lake Superior. The patient, steady pulse of a band and a sound that was internationally revered, but completely of this place.

As a force of nature, a woman possessed of transcendent musicianship, she reshaped this land and our sonic landscape, changing it forever and to be remembered for good.

Our Editor’s have been listening to Low a lot since Parker’s passing, here’s a playlist to introduce you to their music—or remember their greatness:

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