'She-Ra': AJ Michalka Talks Her Catra-Inspired Spin on Theme Song, Season 5 and New Aly & AJ Music (Exclusive)
By Emily Krauser
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The final season of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power is not only starting off with a bang and a fight, but a whole new warrior. Well, a spin on the theme song, "Warriors," that is.
ET has an exclusive premiere of a brand new featurette, in which AJ Michalka walks fans through her dark, moody take on the original upbeat track. The new version is deeply moving and helps add an extra layer of meaning to executive producer Noelle Stevenson's story of female empowerment. Watch above!
Michalka, who voices Catra, tells ET she was "super game to play with the song." As the title track of the show, the original is an anthemic pop song that sets up the tone of the show, namely the focus on female empowerment. Going into season 5, the writers wanted a "Catra version," or a villainous take on the tune, to close out the series.
"We went into the booth, recorded for a few hours and just got into a rhythm where it was like, this is from Catra. This is not AJ singing, this is Catra singing," Michalka recalls of working with the songwriters. "I've never really done something like that. Obviously, I've voiced this character for the past couple of years, but I've never voiced a song before from a character's perspective. Having this opportunity to voice the version that Catra would sing as opposed to the uplifting, cheery version that would be on the other side of things was really fun for me."
"That was my last recording for Catra, so I'm really happy that I have that and I'm happy that it can lead us into the final season," she adds, "because the final season gets pretty dark."
With the ruthless Horde Prime having finally arrived and Adora without her Sword of Protection, and thus none of her powers as She-Ra, things truly have gone to the dark side. The Rebellion is facing its toughest challenge yet, while Catra is in quite the emotional state. Along with Glimmer and Hordak, Catra has been taken on Horde Prime's ship, has lost any friend she's ever had and is struggling more than ever to parse through her moral compass. In fact, many of the characters are trying to figure out which side they're on and why they're fighting so hard.
"She's definitely not stable emotionally, and it make sense why," Michalka muses. "Catra is figuring out during kidnapping how she's going to work with Horde Prime. She's been able to slip into Hordak's world for as long as possible to keep up with him as a villain and stay guarded and true to who she is, but also have to turn up the edge a little bit. Now, she's having to figure out how can she do this with someone like Horde Prime, who is way above what even she thought was possible. I think that there's an interesting dynamic there. She has to figure out, 'How am I going to start working with someone like this? Can I keep up with this kind of villain?' And so it's interesting. We're going to see a lot of character development during the season."
Despite her many villainous turns throughout the previous four seasons -- and we're sure more to come -- Catra is not a character people often hate. Michalka believes that even though Catra began the series as self-centered, fans understand her struggles.
"Catra doesn't really understand that Adora didn't abandon her but is instead focused on the greater good of humanity. A lot of Catra's actions come from this feeling of betrayal, and that's something a lot of other people have experienced, so they can relate to her," Michalka explains. "She truly feels like, 'I have lost a friend and what am I fighting for now?' And I think people have realized that Catra is truly suffering. She is a sad girl. She's lost all the people that said they would be there for her. She didn't really accept kindness when it was given to her. At the start of the season, she's lost Adora, she's lost Scorpia, she's lost arguably Double Trouble, and now she's sitting there going, 'OK, who do I have? I don't have anyone to fight for. So at this point, I gotta just hit the ground running.'"
It would seem like Catra and Adora have hit a point of no return, but the 29-year-old actress doesn't feel all is lost, even if life and death are at stake, because the pair went through so much growing up together as best friends.
"Catra turned out to be a lot more capable of darkness than Adora ever expected, so Adora now has this issue with trust. And I do believe that their friendship was built on unconditional love when they were kids," she says. "Now, they are entering adulthood and they have no idea who the other one really is, and we're going to have to see them mend that."
"This whole show centers around friendship and people trying to relate to one another," she continues. "You have the Best Friend Squad, which has been an incredible friendship on television for young kids to witness, and then you have the friendship between Scorpio and Catra, which Catra has now kind of left aside. She didn't really grab it when she could have and now she's lost that. So, Catra really has to realize what's important to her and what she should put as a priority. At this point, she's really, really missing her friend, and she's gonna have to build that relationship up again from ground zero."
Michalka's bubbly personality is clear when chatting with her, which makes it hard to believe she can get into such a dark headspace, especially for some of the more sinister storylines in season 5. In order to get into Catra's more villainous headspace over the years, Michalka has dug into her musical background for help. For this past year or so, that's meant a lot of The Weeknd.
"It sounds weird, but that heavy '80s electronic, synth sound with some of that mix of dark pop has been helpful for me before I go into sessions. That was something I would crank in the car before I go in," she says. "I think 'Blinding Lights' is such a great Catra song for some reason. It just works -- I can just see her figuring out who she is still. For me, music is a huge part of my job and when it's an emotional scene, I'll listen to a song that brings a lot of emotion out of me, like Jeff Buckley's 'Hallelujah.' I have my own little playlist as an actor of where I need to go depending on what the scene calls for. I think music is a huge part of what we do as actors, whether it's live-action or animation."
Interestingly, the last two Aly and AJ EPs that Michalka put out with her sister, Aly Michalka -- 2017's Ten Years and 2019's Sanctuary -- were heavy on that same throwback sound, as is their newest single, "Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor," which dropped on Friday. Though '80s synth-pop is very much in Michalka's wheelhouse and helped inform their first new songs in a decade, their next full-length album, which is expected to come out in September or October, will go in a different direction.
"I definitely would say it's not quite as '80s-inspired synth-pop as the last two EPs. It'll be a refreshing departure for Aly and I," she says. "It's awesome to tell a story for a certain amount of time and then go tour and play that stuff live and get your fans attached to it and then kind of flip things on its head and kickstart a new sound, and Aly and I were ready for something that was a little more rooted in live guitars, live drums -- an aspect that almost feels more like our live show than our last two recordings. I think this record will be a great display of that."
Amid the coronavirus outbreak, the sisters won't be able to get back into the studio to cut the record until the end of May, but they've been able to work with their producer over Zoom and most of their songwriting is locked down. The goal is to carve out each song with live musicians between May and July so that if her ABC sitcom, Schooled, gets picked up for a third season, the album will be wrapped before Michalka goes back to filming in August. It's also fitting how much the schedule reflects how well the California native has been able to balance both her acting and singing careers.
"One really informs the other. Like, I play a music teacher on television, and I was asked to sing this recording for Catra. It's neat that I can do things that I wouldn't have necessarily been able to do if I wasn't a singer or really comfortable with an instrument," she says. "Having both pairs really well -- it's like a marriage. I feel so lucky that I've been able to truly give a lot of my time and energy to one while the other one kind of marinates and then I flip it, and part of the year is spent touring and part of the year is spent filming. I'm really blessed that both have really taken off."
With Schooled wrapping up season 2 with a prom-themed episode on Wednesday and the final season of She-Ra streaming next Friday, it's actually not a bad time to be forced to self-isolate. It's both busy and slow for Michalka as she stays at home with her boyfriend and their dogs. She's trying to stay "grateful and sane and healthy and focusing on things that I don't usually focus on," which has meant starting a small garden, cooking more, reading and watching "good TV" like Ozark. She recently began reading Station Eleven, which is eerily enough about a fictional pandemic known as the "Georgia Flu," while her sister just started The Handmaid's Tale. "I'm laughing that we're both reading the darkest books during this time," she admits.
Though this clearly wasn't planned, it's actually the perfect moment for both Schooled and She-Ra to conclude amid these dark times, though Michalka is hoping for a season 3 renewal for the former.
"I have really good feelings about the next season. We don't know [about a pickup] yet, but our show is really well-received and we do super well every week, and I think having that hour of television between TheGoldbergs and Schooled and that pairing that people can look forward to every Wednesday, like appointment television for families, is really important," she says. "I think during isolation, especially, those shows have brought a lot of positivity and joy. With She-Ra, it's kind of perfect timing that season 5 gets to launch in May, as we, hopefully, transition a little more into regular life. I know things will never really be the same probably for a while, but hopefully, this can bring a lot of joy that people really need."
Season 5 of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power premieres on Netflix on May 15. The full She-Ra soundtrack drops on May 8, as does Michalka's "Warriors."