The praise being given to BMI composer Sonya Belousova is more than well deserved. One of Variety’s “Top 10 Composers to Watch,” Belousova, along with Giona Ostinelli, are the composers of Netflix’s smash The Witcher, the soundtrack of which debuted at #1 in iTunes Top Soundtracks worldwide, fueled by their explosive score and breakout hit “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher.” The immensely popular song, which is featured in the LA Times’ “The 2020 Emmy-Contending Original Songs,” quickly became a viral sensation and a worldwide phenomenon. Since its release, “Toss a Coin” has amassed millions of listeners, inspired hundreds of incredibly diverse YouTube cover versions, and garnered rave reviews from critics, while the album itself has surpassed 100 million streams.
In addition to being an in-demand scribe who also penned Facebook Watch’s Sacred Lies and Paramount network’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel, The Mist, among other lauded projects, Belousova is also a virtuoso concert pianist who gained millions of global fans from her exciting music project, Player Piano. Belousova’s brilliant performances of her powerful arrangements have earned over 20 million views worldwide, while being declared “terrific” by Forbes and “mind-blowing” by Entertainment Weekly.
BMI caught up with Belousova shortly after she was presented with a BMI Award for her work on The Romanoffs to ask about her journey to success. She graciously shared her story with us. Here it is in her own words.
You were recently named one of Variety’s 10 Composers To Watch after your extremely strong sonic showing in Netflix’s The Witcher. Tell us what it is about the music you think triggered this success and what it means to you.
Wow, this year has been a blast indeed! I’m absolutely stoked to have made it to this year’s coveted Variety’s “10 Composers To Watch” list. A huge thank you to Jon Burlingame for the shout-out. I’m also thrilled to have been included in the LA Times’s “The 2020 Emmy-Contending Original Songs” with my Billboard No.1 song “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” leading the playlist. It’s an honor to have been recognized for my work, and I’m so grateful for such an overwhelming response from both critics and audiences! Furthermore, we have just surpassed 100 million streams on The Witcher soundtrack album. We have crossed these major and rare milestones for a television soundtrack, and I’m deeply grateful to Netflix, Milan Records, Sony Masterworks, and, of course, all the fans for their extraordinary love, appreciation, and support, and for helping us achieve these incredible numbers!
The best part about scoring The Witcher was the constant stream of unlimited creative opportunities this unique and vast universe provided, which probably was the main factor that triggered this incredible success. The Witcher universe is so diverse with creatures like elves, dwarfs, humans, dragons, and all kinds of monsters inhabiting the Continent, that we felt it was crucial for this diversity to be represented in the music. My composing partner Giona Ostinelli and I wrote and produced over 8 hours of original music that included songs, score, folk tunes, and dances, we got a chance to collaborate with virtuoso soloists and incredible artists, recorded unique one-of-a-kind historical instruments, many of which were crafted specifically for The Witcher, and personally performed and recorded over 60 instruments. So when the soundtrack and our song “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” went viral immediately after the show’s release and topped the charts globally, we were absolutely blown away by such a phenomenal reception. The soundtrack album hit No.1 on the iTunes Top Soundtracks charts worldwide, broke into the Billboard charts, including the Top Current Albums and Top Album Sales charts, and topped the 10 Rock and Pop Albums lists in every major territory in the world. It’s been incredible to witness how much it has inspired fans and other artists across the globe, and I’m beyond thrilled that all our excitement while writing the music translated through it and triggered such a powerful response!
Your song from the series, “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” is considered a “surprise breakout hit song.” Tell us about its creation and which musical part was written first. Taking into account its infectious chorus, was it really a surprise that it has topped the charts and become a global success?
After we wrote “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” we just couldn’t get it out of our heads, it got stuck immediately, which is always a great sign that the material you wrote is catchy and worth developing further. This song occupies a significant place in the episode, it’s a punchy epic anthem our bard is starting up – coming from a bitter nerd who got beat up but then the hero came in and saved the day! It’s a song for his champion, “hell yeah, the hero is here!” song, a powerful anthem with an energy that carries us up and out to the end of the episode. There’s ego in this song, there’s attitude and swagger. In fact, here in the studio, we call our bard the “Freddie Mercury of the Continent,” since this song transforms his character into the rock star of “The Witcher” world. With all that being said, we did expect the song to attract attention from fans. But to this degree? No, I don’t think any of us has anticipated such massive success. As soon as the song was released commercially, it charted No.1 on Billboard and iTunes in every country and generated rave reviews from both critics and fans, millions of listens and hundreds of incredibly diverse YouTube covers, any genre you can think of - from folk choir to hard rock and metal, it has even been translated into multiple languages. And as if that weren’t enough, it charted as Billboard No. 1 in the Rock Sales category… which was like wait, what?!?... Wow!!
We wrote “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” back in October 2018 before production on the series began. The reason why we got involved this early on in the process was that we had to write and produce songs and dances needed for the shoot. In order to find the right approach, we wrote between 5 to 7 versions for each song ranging from medieval to contemporary. To tell you the truth, we even wrote a rap version of “Toss A Coin” because why not, we had so much fun with it and were so inspired! However, as soon as we wrote the version that ended up being the final one, we knew right away it was the one. We collaborated closely with the brilliant Jenny Klein, writer and co-executive producer of the series. Yes, this is the person responsible for those lyrics that have been impossible to get out of your head! #OhValleyOfPlenty! I sang on all the demos at the demo stage. Once the music was approved, the next stage involved working very closely with the incredibly talented Joey Batey, who plays our bard Jaskier in the show. The majority of the song’s production was done here in our studio in LA, with the exception of Joey’s vocals and lutes. We were in London mixing the other episodes when we had our final recording session with Joey. Some trivia – Joey was “sick as a dog” that day, as he himself describes it, so we had to make sure he drank plenty of tea with honey and lemon to get him through the day. Joey made it through with flying colors, he was able to deliver an absolutely stunning performance, and I think it was at that session that we all knew we had a hit.
The Witcher is a fantasy and the music perfectly depicts that genre. Tell us about how you chose the instruments, even crafted some of them to create such a unique yet fitting score.
We had a lot of recording sessions for The Witcher soundtrack. Many of the instruments we recorded were hand-crafted specifically for this score and came to us from all over the world: Armenia, Russia, Hungary, Portugal, China, Malaysia, the Emirates, USA. We collaborated with world-class soloists, furthermore, Giona and I personally performed and recorded over 60 instruments on the soundtrack. Here’re some of the instruments featured on the score: hurdy-gurdy, violin, oboe, duduk, lutes, renaissance mandolins, baroque guitars, theorbo, psaltery, dulcimers, harmoniums, harp, ethnic woodwinds (xun, cane flutes, penny whistles, recorders, Native American flutes, bansuri), shruti box, tagelharpa, erhu, toy pianos, jaw harp, rainstick, berimbau, a variety of percussion and drums from orchestral to ethnic (gongs, frame drums, bodhrans, djembe, talking drums, orchestral toms, snare), contrabass, water bottles, Pringles cans, and a metallic trash can!
Our goal was to diversify the usage of these unique instruments and sometimes use them in their most traditional manner and other times with a much more contemporary approach. For example, whenever there’s a royal ball at Cintra, we have an array of historical instruments taking the lead. We recorded a hurdy-gurdy - a stringed instrument widely popular in medieval Europe to accompany dances, or a shawm - a medieval equivalent to a modern oboe, as well as other historical winds, lutes, baroque guitars, mandolins, psaltery and a variety of medieval percussion and drums. On the other hand, the hurdy-gurdy is prominently featured in episode 3 “Betrayer Moon” during Geralt’s epic battle with Striga and Yennefer’s dramatic transformation sequence. In this particular case, we wanted it to sound much more contemporary and edgy, and therefore we applied various effects and distortions to it to achieve that particular sound quality we were looking for. We went through this “modernization” process with almost every historical instrument throughout the whole score.
Beyond that, we had brilliant soloists joining our musical family for The Witcher soundtrack. Lindsay Deutsch, a world-class virtuoso violinist, performed all the violin and fiddle solos. Lindsay is remarkably talented, and we’re honored to have her magical violin on our soundtrack. Declan de Barra is not only a writer and supervising producer on the show but an extraordinary musician and vocalist. Our fruitful collaboration with Declan resulted in three original songs we wrote and produced together with Declan featuring his powerful vocals - “The Song of The White Wolf” for the season finale, “The Last Rose of Cintra” and “The End’s Beginning.” Declan also provided a very special vocal sauce for the rest of the score. Rodion Belousov performed all the oboe and duduk solos on the soundtrack. In fact, the fan-favorite Yennefer’s theme belongs to Rodion’s oboe. His tone is warm and silky and evokes such a powerful emotional response. And Rodion’s duduk perfectly captures the spirit of the Golden Dragon. The instrument was hand-crafted specifically for the series by the Armenian makers. Arngeir Hauksson is an incredible musician who we were lucky to meet in London. Arngeir recorded for us various lutes, renaissance mandolins, a 4-course guitar, 5-course guitar, theorbo, and other medieval plucked strings instruments. A wonderful musician and dear friend Burak Besir recorded virtuosic flute solos including the penny whistle solo in “We’re Alive.” And lastly, we worked closely with Joey Batey who plays Jaskier in the show, for whom we wrote and produced four songs – “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” “Her Sweet Kiss,” “The Fishmonger’s Daughter,” and “You Think You’re Safe.”
How much of the script did you see before sitting down to put your thoughts together for the music?
We had all 8 episodes available to us. As soon as we read them, we were immediately transported into this universe and knew right away we were in for something very special. Before we even had a picture to work with we already had over an hour of music written, which included songs, dances, and various thematic suites. The Witcher is a very thematic score. Due to its great length and complexity, it was very important for us to establish a strong thematic material that would develop throughout the arc of the season. Therefore, starting so early was a great advantage. This gave us an opportunity to explore and find the right soundscape appropriate for the spirit and tone of the series by writing thematic suites for each character. For example, “Geralt of Rivia,” which became Geralt’s theme and the main theme of the show, was the very first music suite we wrote back in October 2018. Having worked in ballet and theater, both Giona and I are always eager to take inspiration purely from the script and let our imagination drive us. You have a blank canvas in front of you and you can paint it in any color. You’re driven by the music itself, its melody, or harmony with the goal to make the piece as dynamic and entertaining as possible. When writing to picture, you need to be aware at all times of the rules the picture itself sets for you. At the same time, there’s beauty in those limitations as they set very clear guidelines.
You and your co-writer, Giona Ostinelli, will be performing your “Suite From The Witcher” at the 2021 Krakow International Film Music Festival. What do you hope will be the audience’s take away from that performance?
Giona and I are so excited about our performance at the 2021 Krakow Film Music Festival. We can’t wait to bring our fans the music from The Witcher live and perform it with the full orchestra, choir and virtuoso soloists in front of the audience of over 20 thousand people. Both Lindsay Deutsch and Declan de Barra will join us on stage; I will also perform both piano and hurdy-gurdy. It will be a blast and we can’t wait to share this performance with the audience and have everyone join us together in singing “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher” with the full choir! Furthermore, the 2021 performance will be very special given the current situation happening in the world and the 2020 concert cancellation, so we want this to be a celebration of life, love, high spirit, and wonderful music!
Tell us a bit about your musical background. How did you start out and when did you know you wanted to make a career out of your music?
I grew up in Russia. I started playing piano at the age of 5, made my debut at the St. Petersburg Philharmonia at the age of 8, and started taking formal composition lessons at the age of 10. I became the recipient of the Russian Ministry of Culture award at the age of 13, was admitted to college at the age of 15 and received a stellar education at some of the best music conservatories both Russia and the US have to offer. As much as I enjoyed writing concert music and performing, I was always passionate about storytelling and expressing the story through music. At a certain point, writing music for films and TV became a natural evolution for me.
As an accomplished concert pianist, how much of your music is written with the piano in mind? Is that where you begin your projects?
My process is different for every project. If it’s a purely orchestral palette like in the case of Matt Weiner’s The Romanoffs, I started writing with pencil and paper. Solo piano is prominently featured in The Romanoffs soundtrack, I even had to compose a piano concerto for the series, so the majority of the score was written on a piano. If a film or a series requires primarily an electronic score like Sacred Lies, we would definitely start writing it in our DAW or by playing around with synths. With The Witcher it was a completely different process because it was both writing and recording at the same time. We actually started with our hurdy-gurdy, which is how “Geralt of Rivia” came together. Or some cues were composed on a harp like Renfi’s theme “Tomorrow I’ll Leave Blaviken For Good.” The score for The Witcher is very soloistic and virtuosic in nature and there is really no way to just mock it up. Therefore, writing and recording was a unified process for us rather than two separate steps. All the various instruments we have here in our studio are an organic extension of our DAW, we don’t consider recording to be a separate part of the process.
You’ve scored many other projects including Amazon’s The Romanoffs, Blumhouse’s Sacred Lies, three ballets and a commercial for Mitsubishi, among others. Tell us how you landed those gigs and what skills you needed to tap into to make them a success?
I really enjoy exploring projects in different styles and genres. That’s what really fuels me creatively - being able to enjoy this versatility whether it’s composing songs, score, folk tunes, and dances for an expansive epic fantasy world such as “The Witcher,” or creating a delicate sophisticated orchestral palette for “The Romanoffs,” or writing and producing pop songs and score for “Sacred Lies,” or creating cool electronic grooves for “M.F.A.,” or writing three contemporary classical ballets “The House of Bernarda Alba,” “Orchis,” and “Surrogate” for Festival Ballet Providence, or composing and performing virtuosic solo piano arrangements for our viral project with Stan Lee, “Player Piano.”
I think being comfortable in different styles and genres is one of the most valuable skills a composer could have. I believe you need to be extremely versatile to be successful as an artist, especially when it comes to writing music for films and TV. Aspiring composers should listen to as much music as they can, expose themselves to diverse genres and styles. The more proficient you are in every genre, the more versatile you are as an artist.
Lastly, here’s a fun story for you. Several years back, I was hired by Mitsubishi to music produce and star in a commercial for their brand. It was a very last-minute call and they wanted me to perform a classical piece of music, something really virtuosic and passionate. Long story short, I’m boarding the plane from LA to Tokyo and I still don’t know which piece I’m about to record the next day. My agent calls me telling me that it’s very likely to be Chopin’s Fantaisie Impromptu. Great, except… I have never played Fantaisie Impromptu before, and it’s a virtuosic 6-minute piece that I have to effortlessly perform by memory the next day. So throughout the whole 12-hour flight, I’m there sitting with the score in front of me and practicing the piece on a tray table trying to learn and memorize it. By the time I landed in Tokyo, I had the piece fully memorized. The next day was the first time I tried it on a piano, we recorded it that same day, and the day after I was already shooting the commercial performing the piece at the famed Globe Theater in Tokyo. I had no idea it was even possible to nail such a piece by only practicing it on the tray table a thousand miles up in the air. The bottom line is, be proficient at your craft, so that when the opportunity arises, you’re able to succeed!
What’s next for you?
We have the Krakow Film Music Festival scheduled for 2021, as well as more live concerts at other venues around the world. Given the current situation, they all have been delayed, however, stay tuned, we’re very much looking forward to announcing them soon. We’re very excited about the Krakow Film Music Festival next year and can’t wait to share this wonderful experience with the audience. In place of this year’s festival, Giona and I were invited to perform as part of the Krakow’s “Live From The Studio” Concert Series. We were joined by Lindsay Deutsch who recorded the brilliant violin solos on The Witcher soundtrack. This performance took place on May 30th and featured our most popular songs from “The Witcher” soundtrack. For those of you who missed it, you can find it here.
I’ve also partnered up with Netflix, Sony Masterworks, and Milan Records to bring our fans an adventurous in-studio solo piano concert featuring some of the fan-favorite songs and themes from our soundtrack to The Witcher, as well as an exclusive premiere of my solo piano arrangement of “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher.” The concert took place on May 21 and is available on the SonySoundtracksVEVO YouTube channel. There’s been so much demand that we also commercially released my solo piano arrangement of “Toss A Coin To Your Witcher,” which is available now on all streaming platforms. I had such a wonderful time revisiting this song and giving it a new spin!
On June 5, we released The Witcher soundtrack album’s vinyl edition, which followed our hugely successful digital release and arrived as a gorgeous 2-LP deluxe gatefold set. We wanted to make this release extra special and decided to give our fans a small gift by featuring on it an exclusive bonus track “You Think You’re Safe” performed by the incredibly talented Joey Batey. Fans have long-awaited this vinyl and we’re so thrilled to be able to finally share it with them! And being able to surpass 100 million album streams in such a short period of time is so amazing and gratifying that we couldn’t be more thankful to all the fans who joined us on this incredible journey, as well as the amazing folks at Netflix, Milan Records & Sony Masterworks who made it all happen!
And last but not least, Forbes Russia has just released its annual “30 Under 30” list, and I’m incredibly honored to have been awarded a coveted spot on it. Follow my social media accounts to stay up to date with all our awesome news!
Why did you join BMI and how has it impacted your career?
I always loved how transparent, organized, and supportive BMI is towards its artists. They have a wonderful team helming the Film Music department that’s always ready to help and answer any tricky questions that may arise, whether they’re cue sheets related, or anything else. BMI represents a wonderful community of brilliant artists, and it really motivates and inspires me to be around such incredible talent. Furthermore, I’m beyond thrilled and honored to have won the BMI Award this year for my work on The Romanoffs. Thank you, BMI, for this recognition and I really hope to be able to celebrate in person next year!