Anatomy of a song: How The Witcher earworm 'Toss a Coin to Your Witcher' was made
Lyricist Jenny Klein and composers Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli reveal the full story behind the song you just can't get out of your head.
"Toss a coin to your Witcher! Oh valley of plenty, oh valley of plenty, ohhhh. Toss a coin to your Witcher, a friend of humanity!"
Admit it, The Witcher fans: for months, those lyrics have been impossible to get out of your head (apologies for getting them stuck back in there again now that you've read 'em here). The Netflix series debuted in December and there was a lot to unpack from the timeline-hopping, fantasy epic. Henry Cavill's grunts! Those meticulously choreographed action sequences! But really, all anyone can talk about (or sing) is "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher."
The catchy earworm written and sung by witty bard Jaskier (Joey Batey) was initially meant to rebrand Cavill's Witcher, Geralt of Rivia, early on in the first season, but soon it spread across the fictional continent until it became part of the show's culture. And with its rock-pop flavor mixed with traditional medieval prose, it's now become part of our pop culture to the point where countless covers have been made by fans and uploaded to the internet daily. "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" has taken on a life of its own, and no one is more surprised than the song's creators.
The Witcher co-executive producer Jenny Klein wrote the second episode of the season, "Four Marks," in which "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" is first heard. That meant she took on the role of lyricist for the bop, something she had never done before. "I definitely did not expect this — I’m a TV writer, a screenwriter, and I didn’t know that I would write lyrics into a script and go to bed a writer and wake up with a song that people were rapidly listening to!" she tells EW with a laugh. When it was time to break episode 2, Klein knew it was the hour in which the "delightful and talkative" Jaskier would be introduced.
"At the end of his adventure with Geralt, he was going to be continuing on with the Witcher through the series but with him being so talkative, the question became, why does Geralt bring this guy along with him? Because he obviously wears on his patience," Klein says. "I wanted him to earn his stripes and possibly create a PR campaign for the Witcher because he doesn’t have a great rap."
The Witcher showrunner Lauren Hissrich then came up with the idea to have Jaskier sing songs on the show, which then sparked the idea in Klein's mind to create one song to serve many purposes. "That was so exciting. I was like, could Jaskier write a song that could thread together the re-envisioning of the elf history in that episode and also emotionally threading together Geralt and Yennefer?" Klein says. "Even though they weren’t together in that episode, this song could be a way to tie together these two extremely extraordinary outsiders who have to move among regular people. Like, 'Don’t worry, I’m a friend of humanity!' Which is the last line of the song, Jaskier is referring to Geralt but it plays over the final image of Yennefer smiling."
Once it was decided Jaskier would sing this all-important song, it was time for inexperienced lyrics writer Klein to do just that. "I was not nervous. I was excited," she says with another laugh. "I enjoy writing in any form. I originally wanted to be a poet and lyrics are a form of poetry that become shaped musically. I knew it was a challenge and I was up for the challenge. I knew worst [case] was we don’t use the song — that’s not a bad worst-case scenario, and that’s how I don’t get scared."
Klein turned to Andrzej Sapkowski's stories upon which the Netflix series is based for inspiration in writing the lyrics, which is when she started to notice something pretty big. "Often the Witcher doesn’t get paid for his work. That sucks!" she says. "I was in my car and I was just feeling bad for Geralt not getting paid and that’s when I started to sing to myself, 'Toss a coin to your Witcher.' It was when I was driving and then I pulled over and fumbled with my voice memo to record the lines and then I rushed home instead of going to the errand I was supposed to be running."
She laughs again before continuing, "And I just wrote out the lyrics in like 10 minutes. It just spurted out. It was really fun. I knew I was going to be doing it but the times when I sat down like, okay, I’ve got to write this, of course it comes when you least expect it. I’m glad it did!"
Another source of inspiration is the name of the location in which Geralt's story takes place in episode 2. Translated from an elvish language, Klein says it means "Valley of Flowers or Valley of Plenty." "So I was like, to not even get paid in the Valley of Plenty? Come on! Toss a coin to your Witcher! I got excited about this being a way to draw empathy for the character. So that’s how I ended up coining 'Toss a Coin to Your Witcher.'"
And there's one lyric that Klein is actually shocked made it into the final version of the song. "There’s a very silly pun in there, 'Cried the Witcher, he can’t be bleat,' referring to the goat man that they fight in the episode," she says. "I continue to be surprised that people got the joke and don’t hate me for it. It’s a song about an underpaid outsider and I feel like we can all bond over that and want to sing about it."
Once all the lyrics were written, it was time to put them to music. Enter: Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, legendary composers, who say they worked with Klein to "perfect [the lyrics] into more of a song form, Belousova tells EW, while Ostinelli adds that "the lyrics Jenny wrote were so perfect for the show and for the episode that the music almost wrote itself."
But, of course, it doesn't work that way. "We wrote the music back in October 2018 and it was one of the first pieces of music we wrote for the show," Belousova explains. "We wanted to write several versions of the song that ranged from medieval and historically accurate to something very contemporary in order to find the right sound balance and the right tone for the show and for the character. We settled on this version and as soon as we wrote this one, we knew that was the one. When we wrote the song, I remember going to a yoga class and instead of being in savasana, I had it in my head."
"We were obsessed while making it," Ostinelli adds. "We wrote many versions but as soon as we wrote this one it was stuck in our heads. We were really hoping for them to choose this one and they did."
Once there was a clear choice, the duo got to work on the "lengthy process, about seven to eight months" of creating the sound for the song, according to Belousova. "We experimented a lot throughout this process," she adds. "We self-performed and recorded 64 instruments in the studio because the continent of The Witcher is so diverse and vast and we wanted to make sure that we represented that diversity in the score. We had instruments that came from all over the world, from China, Malaysia, Russia, Hungary, Portugal. We wanted to utilize all the instruments in creating this song to show the diversity of the continent in the sound."
That presented one of the biggest challenges in writing the music, because they then had to find the right sonic balance between all the unique, medieval instruments while still maintaining the modern quality of the song. "Like the hurdy-gurdy, widely popular in medieval Europe, we used that a lot throughout the song and had to find the right balance with the historical instrument and contemporary sound," Belousova adds.
The duo wanted to make sure that no matter what they added to the song, it never lost that contemporary sound they were going for. "Our intentions for Jaskier was to make him become the kind of Freddie Mercury of the continent, a rock star," Belousova says. "So whenever one of our characters are in a tavern, Jaskier is a popular bard so why not have other musicians, other bards, covering his song? So whenever any of our characters are in a tavern in any place, what you hear in the background is actually different covers of different Jaskier songs."
That's why seeing all the fan covers of "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" online has delighted Belousova and Ostinelli so much over the past few months. "We had so much fun creating other covers ourselves so seeing all the fans creating fantastic covers ranging from rock to folk choirs is so much fun," Ostinelli says. "They’re embracing the same fun we had in making it."
As the rock star of the song himself, it was up to Batey to bring every last drop of his charisma and talent to the final recording of the song (which took place July 4, 2019). There was just one problem.
"Fun fact: Joey was actually sick during the recording of the song," Belousova reveals. "But he was a super trooper. We recorded the song in London and he showed up to the studio and had to drink a lot of tea with honey and lemon, more tea, and even more tea. But he was wonderful and he was able to give us perfect takes, a lot of material, a lot of versatility in every take. Then the final production was completed here in Los Angeles."
Klein says she'll never forget hearing the final version of the song for the first time. "Sonya and Giona are complete geniuses," she says. "They gave different options including really traditional ones to cover their bases but one had more of a rock and poppy feel, and Lauren and I were like, this is super cool. This is like Queen. Sonya and Giona just made it the catchiest song I’ve ever heard. I went to their studio and worked with them, but they knocked that song out of the park. It was a beautiful collaboration and I love them."
Once the song was finished and the show debuted, the song's popularity snowballed. "It's been pretty crazy! It has been astounding and phenomenal," Klein says. She still can't believe how many different covers have been created and released on the internet. "One may be my favorite because it totally shocked me, it was the very first one I heard."
Klein was traveling when the song came out, and her friend sent her a video of a fan-made cover. "All these people from all over the world were singing the song," she says. "They had made a video where they were all singing it separately but it became tiled so that all their voices were singing together and it totally blew me away and made me smile for like a full week. That was the very beginning. I was like, 'What is happening?' My parents called me and I was like, 'I don’t know what’s happening, this thing is catching on!'"
Now the only question remains: will The Witcher top "Toss a Coin to Your Witcher" in the upcoming second season? Can it?!