My devotion to Mimi Parker, Alan Sparhawk, and their band Low began 28 years ago by accident. I was working a summer job at a record label, and someone handed me a stack of unwanted promo CDs, probably as a reward for sorting the mail or some other bit of scutwork. I took the discs with me on a long drive, popping them into the stereo one after another without more than a cursory glance at the cover art, but Low’s I Could Live in Hope didn’t need any introduction to make its mark. The first song on the album, “Words,” starts with a sinuous bass line joined by a minimal drum beat and a stately, echoing guitar riff. Sparhawk’s voice on the first verse is adenoidal, almost strangled. But a minute and a half later, when Parker joins her husband to harmonize on the chorus, her otherworldly voice settles atop the song like gossamer, a layer of mist that transforms the familiar into something mysterious and beckoning. That was all it took.
Mimi Parker died on Saturday, almost two years after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “She passed away last night, surrounded by family and love, including yours,” Sparkhawk wrote on Twitter. “Share this moment with someone who needs you. Love is indeed the most important thing.”
As a vocalist, Parker had a way of stretching out a note so long that it practically vibrated, the way she does on “Holy Ghost” from the band’s 2013 album The Invisible Way. She’s singing about the way she takes sustenance from her faith—she and Sparhawk were longtime Mormons—but also how quickly that sustenance could evaporate: “I feel the hands, but I don’t see anyone—it’s there and gone.” But while her voice is full of breathy vulnerability, her hands pound out a sparse, booming beat, a reminder that some questions can only be answered with the heart and not the head.
In the nearly three decades years since I first heard them, Low—Sparhawk, Parker, and a number of different bassists—became a constant in my life. To judge from Twitter—which, for all its faults and possible imminent collapse, is still the best place to mourn with strangers—I was hardly alone. People talked about growing up with them, playing their songs for their kids, the hard times and dark nights Low’s songs helped them survive. In the established ritual of social-media mourning, the flood of RIPs and YouTube links usually converges on a single point, a song or a clip or a passage that best encapsulates an artist’s body of work. Sometimes if they’ve had an especially long career, there may be two or three of them. But for Parker, there were dozens, as far back as that first album and as recent as last year’s Hey What, the last released before Parker’s death. A friend asked followers to cite their favorite Low albums, and in the first 10 responses he got nine different answers.
In part, that’s because Low never had a career-defining hit—the closest they came to a commercial breakthrough was when their ethereal version of “The Little Drummer Boy” was featured in a Gap ad. But rather than be discouraged by their modest success, they chose to be liberated by it. “It kind of saved our asses … that we were not successful,” Parker told an interviewer last year. “It’s given us freedom to surprise ourselves and others too.” That lack of commercial success made the band’s continued existence a choice the duo had to make rather than a foregone conclusion. And so the fact that they chose to continue, and then kept on making music without compromise or complacency—while staying married and raising two children—feels like a decades-long testament to the possibility of making art and a life at the same time.
Parenthood found its way into Low’s music, usually obliquely; when Parker brought the subject to the fore, in the haunting “In Metal,” it was to express a feeling that many parents hesitate to put into words—that the joy of watching your children grow is tinged with the profound sense of losing who they once were. But outside of their songs, Parker and Sparhawk were straightforward about the challenges of balancing a family and an artistic life, pausing at concerts to acknowledge the childcare workers watching their kids while they were on stage, and speaking honestly about the “frugal” lifestyle they had to adopt in order to make things work long-term. (Part of that frugality was never budging from their home of Duluth, Minn., the place an ambitious Bob Dylan couldn’t wait to put behind him.) Sharon Van Etten recalled Sunday how Parker reassured her that being a mother and a touring musician didn’t have to be incompatible, and the journalist Jessica Hopper called her “a model of possibility for many folks for the entirety of a 30+ year career.”
They were also honest about the struggles in their marriage, especially on 2005’s The Great Destroyer and 2011’s C’mon. Sparhawk spoke about his mental health struggles and entered treatment for substance abuse, and Parker stayed steady—the same dynamic you could see onstage, when Alan would conjure a storm of guitar noise and Mimi would keep the pulse going behind him, pushing onward and leaving it for him to catch up. (In an interview last year, Sparhawk called her his “control valve.”) When he ran off at the mouth introducing a song, she cut him off with a loving but firm aside, and they’d go back to work.
Over the years, I saw Low play in rock clubs and churches, to handfuls of people and sold-out crowds, but what I remember most vividly are the early shows—before they’d built an audience who knew what they were in for, when they had to clue the crowd in on the fly. The band would start playing, slowly and quietly, in venues filled with chatter and the clink of glasses. One audience member would take a seat on the dirty floor, then another and another, until you’d be witness to that rarest of sights: an entire audience shutting up and paying attention. Their moments of quiet made people listen more intently, and when they got loud, it sounded like they were weathering a storm together, even if the storm was each other.
Parker’s and Sparhawk’s last album, Hey What, was the only one they recorded as a duo, but instead of stripping things down, their lockdown collaboration was full of distortion and chaos. Listening to it now, you can hear a different kind of storm raging. “I know what you want, to forget the hurt,” Sparhawk sings. “But either side you’re on, it’s not what you deserve.” But he’s not singing it to Parker—he’s singing it with her, their voices wrapped around either each other in harmony, getting through this together just like everything else.