Mimi Parker

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Mimi Parker
September 15, 1967
Place of origin Bemidji
Years active 1993-2022
Genres Alternative Rock · Indie · Experimental
Instruments Drums · Percussion · Vocals

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 her future husband, Alan 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 harbor 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.

From the onset, Mimi Parker had a voice renowned for its quiet, eerie intensity. Often blended in stunning harmonies with 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, and always mesmerizing.

On tracks such as In Metal, where the couple harmonized 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, with 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 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 The North, 103.3 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 critic Betty Clarke.

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 rank in the Top 30.

Low worked with numerous celebrated producers in its long history, including Steve Albini, Dave Fridmann and Kramer (of New York indie stalwarts Bongwater), who produced the band’s beloved debut record “I Could Live In Hope” in 1994. In 2004, Low released “The Great Destroyer,” their first record under Sub Pop, which has remained their home label to date. In 2021, Parker and Sparhawk released their first album as a sole duo titled “Hey What,” produced by BJ Burton, who also handled the band’s well-loved 2018 record “Double Negative.”

Mimi Parker was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in Dec. 2020. She began treatment in 2021 and revealed her health troubles to the public in a 2022 interview. In October 2022, Low canceled the remainder of their 2022 tour dates as Parker continued her treatment.

“There have been difficult days, but your love has sustained us and will continue to lift us through this time,” Sparhawk said in a statement shared via Instagram. “Our hearts go out immediately to others in similar situations but who don’t have as many people sending such love and healing wishes. Find someone who is alone and needs a chat and give them your time and love. With tears, we say thank you and hope to see you soon.”

Ever optimistic, Low had a North American headline tour scheduled for March 2023. Unfortunately, Parker's condition escalated and on November 5, 2022, Mimi succumbed to the disease. She was only 55.

Hundreds gathered following Parker's passing at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Duluth for a funeral service commemorating her life. Numerous musicians were present at the service, along with several music journalists and other industry professionals who knew and worked with Parker during her long and distinguished career. Duluth Mayor Emily Larson and her predecessor in office, Don Ness, were also in attendance.

Music during the service included the hymns "Amazing Grace" and "How Great Thou Art," as well as an instrumental performance of Low's 2002 song "Point of Disgust." Written by Parker and originally recorded at Sacred Heart Music Center in Duluth, the song was performed by Betsy Faerber on piano and Matt Faerber on organ.

At Parker's personal request, singer-songwriter Tim Rutili performed "Funeral Singers." Hollis Sparhawk, the daughter of Parker and Alan Sparhawk, sang backing vocals on the poignant song released in 2009 by Rutili's band Califone.

Exemplifying Parker's heart and wit, the funeral program included two quotations. The first, from Parker herself, was "Love: it's the most important thing."

The second, from her favorite movie ("Jaws"), was apt for the day's blustery weather: "You're gonna need a bigger boat."

Parker's family also requested that mourners follow an Indigenous tradition of speaking the name of a recently deceased person only sparingly, and with great reverence.

Low shared the news of Parker’s death on its official Twitter account writing: “Friends, it’s hard to put the universe into language and into a short message, but she passed away last night, surrounded by family and love, including yours. Keep her name close and sacred. Share this moment with someone who needs you. Love is indeed the most important thing.”