“What part of me don’t you know?/What part of me don’t you own?” inquire the voices on Low’s “What Part of Me,” a gorgeous, evocative song on the band’s just-released album, Ones and Sixes. It’s an ear-catching, heart-stopping moment filled with sweetness and strife, and fulfilled by minimal instrumentation and trademark wondrous vocal harmonies from co-founders and co-singers Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker. Sparhawk’s dry, thin voice and Parker’s rich, honeyed tones are opposites, and yet perfect partners. All sorts of relationship analogies arise given that these musicians, who are the band’s guitarist and drummer, respectively, are also husband and wife.
“The marriage and the band are one and the same, really,” says Parker, speaking from her hotel room in Chicago the day after the Ones and Sixes Tour launched at Madison, Wisconsin’s High Noon Saloon. From the Windy City, Low — which also includes bassist Steve Garrington, who joined in 2008 — makes its way to New York via Toronto and Boston to play the Music Hall of Williamsburg on September 24. “It’s so normal at this point that I don’t even think about it beyond writing my parts,” Parker continues of singing with her husband. “The instrumentation has changed over the years, but the harmonies stay the same.”
After more than twenty years, the Duluth-based Low has moved more toward electronics for atmospherics. The core remains that play between Sparhawk, who stands stage front, often leading the music off with spiraling, squalling guitar noise, and Parker, standing — no drum stool for this drummer — more to the rear, metering out a minimal pulse that defined the band’s earliest work. Low creates a trancelike meditation with a haunting beauty and an eerie tension. “Each of our personalities are there, and the way we play does show that quite a bit. With the drumming, it’s me with the steady beat, reining it in; with Alan, he’s all go-go-go and goes off with the guitar parts. To have that kind of tension works for the band. It adds a very human element.”
Fifteen years ago, give or take nine or so months, Parker also took on the role of mother; the couple has a girl (age fifteen) and a boy (eleven). Parker juggled motherhood and being a musician, even to the point of having the babies on tour. No easy task, but now that they’re older, her relationship with her music has changed. “It is kind of freeing to be out of that role and take a break from being day-to-day mom,” she says of being on tour. “But over the years, the two have gone hand in hand. Motherhood is a selfless job, to some degree — you’re putting others before you. It’s all good stuff; to see my kids become happy, successful adults is my life goal. I can be selfish, but I do my best.”
The spaces in Low’s music can feel metaphorical for the spaces any romantic relationship needs to allow for individual expression of roles and personality, and for evolution. It is the coming together in the middle ground while remaining separate that defines Low. The album title initially came from Sparhawk’s songwriting, but Parker has her own interpretation: “He said, ‘I seem to be writing songs in ones and sixes.’ But I think of it in gaming terms: Ones and sixes are always lucky rolls.”
As with any close relationship, musical or personal, surrounding themselves with supportive people helps keep things together and moving forward. For Ones and Sixes, the trio chose B.J. Burton to co-produce and engineer, and they recorded at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. “We don’t have a lot of time or a lot of money, so we go into the studio knowing the songs as best we can, and with minimal instrumentation, and then hand over a little to the producer. It means always taking a chance. Obviously there’s back and forth and a producer wouldn’t have us do anything we are uncomfortable with. But that’s when the collaboration opens up and it can be exciting to have this fourth ear on the project.”
Parker doesn’t overthink where the songs come from; she doesn’t Taylor Swift it and home in on an argument or moment of bliss and write away, diary-style. For her, it’s the internal becoming external without deliberation. “Honestly, after I write a song, that’s when it dawns on me how I was and where I was. It’s very freeform and natural for me,” she says. “Then I look back and think, ‘I guess I was thinking this or feeling that.’ It’s always been like that. Then we come together on the songs and at some point Alan and I look at each other and think, ‘Is this going to work?’ We don’t really know, but we plod on and hope for the best.”